The nuts and bolts of charges against former SUSD leaders

A view of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board room at Coronado High School. (file photo)

Fall 2017

Hunt & Caraway Architects Principal Brian Robichaux had been leading the charge on the Hopi Elementary redesign. Documents show the firm was first hired by the district in April 2016 to work on a “facilities master plan” prior to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board approving the bond ballot initiative.

Brian Robichaux (file photo)

District documents, Arizona Corporation Commission files and procurement records show that Hunt & Caraway didn’t go through a public SUSD procurement process, but rather were approved through a Phoenix-based national cooperative, 1 Government Procurement Alliance in 2016.

Scottsdale resident Loyd Eskildson revealed in a Nov. 13 letter to the Independent, that court records show Mr. Robichaux was charged with felony theft in 1998, and a final judgment was signed on 2004.

In State of Arizona v. Brian A. Robichaux, Arizona Superior Court records show Mr. Robichaux obtained $125,653 from the Arizona Department of Transportation for the purpose of building a home for Flora Mae Baptisto Phillips, but used the money for other, unauthorized purposes.

Mr. Robichaux plead guilty to count one, theft, a class 4 felony.

Gust Rosenfeld Susan Segal (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Winter 2017-18

On Dec. 19, 2017, Ms. Segal told district leaders that she found no evidence of wrongdoing in SUSD procurement practices, while she did acknowledge wrongdoings and evidence of over-charging by Hunt & Caraway. Around the same time, she announced she was investigating then-district CFO Laura Smith’s conflict of interest with the district.

Laura Smith

After news broke about Mr. Robichaux’s legal issues, emails obtained from Higley Unified School District between the former Hunt & Caraway president and Dr. Birdwell show a relationship that started at least three years before the superintendent joined Scottsdale Schools.

The estimated 8,000 emails come from 2012 Arcadia High School graduate and law student, Jann-Michael Greenburg. Mr. Greenburg sent the Independent a lengthy preliminary report detailing his opinion, along with access to the emails in full, on Jan. 15. His report alleges personal favors between Hunt & Caraway Architects officials and the Higley Unified School District during Dr. Birdwell’s tenure there.

On Jan. 30, Ms. Segal shared her findings on an internal review into the actions of Ms. Smith, who held the title of chief financial officer for SUSD for less than one year. The CFO’s conflict of interest arose following the district entering into a monetary agreement with Professional Group Public Consulting, Inc. — also known as PGPC — of which Ms. Smith is named president and director.

Ms. Smith arrived at SUSD in early 2017. According to the internal review conducted by Ms. Segal, the school district had paid thousands of dollars to the consulting firm since Ms. Smith joined the district.

Two conflict of interest documents were signed by Ms. Smith — one in February 2017 and the other in May 2017.

While employed as Scottsdale Unified School District’s CFO, Ms. Smith is accused of failing to disclose her interest in a district vendor, Professional Group Public Consulting, and failing to remove herself from district decisions involving the Mesa-based consulting firm, according to Maricopa County Superior Court documents.

Both Ms. Smith and her sister had ownership interest in PGPC, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Ms. Smith was replaced by interim CFO Dr. Doug Virgil, who has now been replaced by Jeff Gadd. Mr. Gadd is considered an interim employee.

Louis Hartwell

On Feb. 13, it was announced that Chief Operations Officer Louis Hartwell had decided not to renew his contract.

Mr. Hartwell was hired on Oct. 3, 2016, according to SUSD Governing Board documents. The SUSD website previously stated his responsibilities include bond and override management, forecast planning, facilities management, asset management.

Community members believed at the time that Mr. Hartwell’s hiring was a form of nepotism, and that he was unqualified for his position due to tax documents that point to fiscal irresponsibility.

The following week, on Feb. 21, Dr. Birdwell was placed on administrative leave.

An Arizona Attorney General’s Office lawsuit requesting to halt the ongoing construction at Hohokam Elementary School and Cheyenne Traditional School was filed the next day, Feb. 22.

Spring 2017

On March 20, the Governing Board voted unanimously that a statement of charges — if proven to be true — constitute cause for Dr. Birdwell’s dismissal.

The statement of charges obtained by the Independent outlined allegations of 14 broken Governing Board policies, violation of Arizona code and a narrative of allegations including Dr. Birdwell, Mr. Robichaux and Mr. Hartwell.

Violations in the district’s statement of charges include allegations of violating district policies that pertain to staff ethics, conduct, conflict of interest, financial accounting and procurement procedures.

The charges the district alleges include:

  • Dr. Birdwell failed to disclose a substantial personal interest related to Hunt & Caraway Architects at the time she recommended and later approved purchase orders for the district to hire the firm;
  • At no time did Dr. Birdwell notify formally or informally the Governing Board, general counsel or anyone representing the district that she was previously employed by, performing services for or otherwise being paid by Hunt & Caraway;
  • The district learned of checks signed by Brian Robichaux reflecting payment from Hunt & Caraway to Dr. Birdwell in significant amounts during 2015;
  • During the time that Dr. Birdwell was negotiating her employment with the district, Hunt & Caraway issued a check to her for $15,000, dated Jan. 4, 2016, signed by Mr. Robichaux; the check was deposited on Jan. 15, 2016;
  • Hunt & Caraway issued payment to “Individual C” dated April 1, 2016, signed by Mr. Robichaux for $15,000; and
  • The check was deposited into a joint account held by Dr. Birdwell and “Individual C.”

Secondly, the document alleges Dr. Birdwell was aware the sister of former Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith was employed by Professional Group Public Consulting.

Dr. Denise Birdwell (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The document states, the superintendent, allegedly, was instrumental in the hiring of Mr. Hartwell, who is the brother of “Individual C,” with whom she shares a bank account. The superintendent at no time notified the Governing Board, general counsel or anyone representing the district that they were acquaintances.

In April, then-SUSD Public Information Officer Erin Helm confirmed that Assistant Superintendent of Personnel and Specialized Services Dr. Pam Sitton had been placed on paid administrative leave. Published news reports link Dr. Sitton’s leave to payment discrepancies to three employees.

A separation agreement dated May 15 stated that Dr. Sitton was to remain on paid leave through July 31, which includes paid accrued vacation in lieu of work days.

On May 14, Ms. Smith was indicted by a grand jury on 11 felony charges, including two counts of fraudulent schemes and practices and eight counts of conflict of interest. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges, court records show.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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