Felon issued checks to Scottsdale superintendent; district moves to fire her

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Dr. Denise Birdwell (right) and COO Louis Hartwell (left) have 15 days to request an appeal hearing or their terminations become final. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Dr. Denise Birdwell (right) and COO Louis Hartwell (left) have 15 days to request an appeal hearing or their terminations become final. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
SUSD COO Louis Hartwell will step down June 30. (Source: SUSD) SUSD COO Louis Hartwell will step down June 30. (Source: SUSD)
An investigator hired by SUSD revealed that Brian Robichaux was an unlicensed architect who was previously convicted of stealing public funds. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) An investigator hired by SUSD revealed that Brian Robichaux was an unlicensed architect who was previously convicted of stealing public funds. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Laura Smith (Source: Scottsdale Unified School District) Laura Smith (Source: Scottsdale Unified School District)
SCOTTSDALE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

The governing board of the Scottsdale Unified School District announced Tuesday it will begin the process of terminating its embattled superintendent for cause after a district investigation turned up evidence that she lied to the public, violated policies and possibly broke state laws.

District investigators said there’s evidence Dr. Denise Birdwell accepted tens of thousands of dollars in personal checks from an unlicensed architect, then recommended his firm and approved purchase orders to it shortly after she became superintendent.

Birdwell accepted checks from Brian Robichaux in 2015 and 2016 for “significant amounts,” according to paperwork submitted to the governing board Tuesday. Investigators specifically cited two checks in 2016 totaling $30,000. One check, dated January 4, 2016, was issued while the superintendent was negotiating her employment with the district.

Robichaux's firm, Hunt & Caraway Architects, went on to work on multimillion dollar school rebuild projects for Scottsdale Unified. An outside attorney hired by SUSD announced in December the company potentially overbilled the district by "hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

[RELATED: Unlicensed architect overbilled Scottsdale Unified by 'hundreds of thousands,' report finds]

Birdwell’s decision to hire Robichaux’s firm was based on “her personal relationship with Robichaux,” according to investigators, representing a violation of district policy on conflicts of interest. Robichaux was unlicensed because he was convicted of stealing public funds in the 1990s.

“I'm absolutely blown away by all of this,” said Scottsdale Parent Council President Michael Peabody. “This is deeper and more nefarious than I could ever think it would be.”

“This is beyond pay-to-play,” said SUSD parent Susan Hughes.

The second check from Robichaux, dated April 1, 2016, was deposited into a joint account held by Dr. Birdwell and her housemate, Kay Hunnicutt, according to the documents.

The investigation found Dr. Birdwell was “instrumental” in the hiring of Hunnicutt’s brother, Louis Hartwell, but never revealed her personal ties to him to anyone representing the district. Dr. Birdwell promoted Hartwell to Chief Operations Officer on May 8, 2017.

The district filed a separate notice to terminate Hartwell for accounting discrepancies and for falsifying his qualifications. Hartwell claimed on three websites he had a bachelor’s degree and an MBA, two requirements for the position. “However, Mr. Hartwell did not (and does not) even have a bachelor’s degree,” the document states.

[RELATED: Documents raise questions about SUSD superintendent's personal ties]

Dr. Birdwell boosted Hartwell’s pay by $20,000 without the Board’s knowledge, according to the documents.

The district also says Dr. Birdwell lied to the public when she claimed she was unaware that Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith’s sister was the owner of another company doing consulting work for the district. One witness said Birdwell was aware they were sisters in the fall of 2010.

Birdwell has 15 days to request an appeal before a hearing officer. Hartwell has 10 days. If they request an appeal, a hearing would take place 15 to 30 days later. 

The administrators have been on paid leave since February and will remain on paid leave until their cases are finalized. Birdwell is due to make a base salary of $204,000 per year through June 2019.

[RELATED: Scottsdale Unified could fire embattled superintendent Tuesday]

[RELATED: SUSD superintendent on paid leave amid parent outcry & investigations]

Attorney General Investigation

Birdwell’s tenure at the helm of the state's 10th largest school district has been dogged by allegations of nepotism and conflicts of interest within her administration. Birdwell’s chief financial officer, Laura Smith, resigned in January.

The Arizona Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the district Feb. 22, claiming SUSD and Hunt & Caraway violated state law when awarding some of the bond-funded construction contracts. The Attorney General’s Office also has a “similar criminal investigation” which is ongoing, according to spokeswoman Mia Garcia.

[RELATED: Attorney General files lawsuit against Scottsdale Unified and unlicensed architect]

Parents filed complaints with the AG last year after uncovering irregularities with a construction project at Hopi Elementary. The firm hired to design the school, Hunt & Caraway, was run by an unlicensed architect with a felony conviction for stealing public funds.

PGPC and a Conflict of Interest

Emails show a concerned citizen also complained to district leadership in June about the use of a consulting firm called PGPC, which was co-owned by Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith and run her sister.

The district’s investigation concluded that Smith facilitated in the hiring of PGPC and authorized several payments to the company in a manner that appeared to violate state statutes on conflicts of interest. Smith submitted a letter of resignation Jan. 26.

Smith was hired by Dr. Birdwell. Parents staged a large protest Feb. 13 calling for the board to fire her.

[PDF: Louis Hartwell Statement of charges]

[PDF: Denise Birdwell Statement of charges]

[RELATED: Documents raise questions about SUSD superintendent's personal ties]

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