Newly released emails show a Valley school superintendent sought favors from an unlicensed architect who was awarded millions of dollars in school projects.
The emails raise new questions about the relationship between Scottsdale Unified School District superintendent Denise Birdwell and the former president of Hunt & Caraway Architects, Brian Robichaux.
An investigator hired by SUSD revealed last month that Robichaux was an unlicensed architect who was previously convicted of stealing public funds. The report found Robichaux’s firm potentially overbilled SUSD by “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” but ultimately concluded no district employees, including Dr. Birdwell, “received anything of value that would or did affect their decision to select Hunt & Caraway.”
However, SUSD’s investigator did not review emails exchanged between Robichaux and Dr. Birdwell during her stint at Higley Unified School District, according to the report’s list of sources.
The emails show Dr. Birdwell asked Robichaux for help finding and furnishing a home for her personal use in 2012 and 2013. Robichaux agreed to accompany Birdwell on a home viewing in 2012 and connected her with a mortgage broker in March 2013. Birdwell asked Robichaux to reach out to a carpet supplier on her behalf in April 2013, and the following month she signaled the job was complete: "It smells great already."
In an email exchange from May 2013, Birdwell sent Robichaux several pages of bedroom, dining, and office furniture and wrote, “Can you see what kind of prices you can get. [sic] Thanks.”
The emails were obtained through a public records request by Jann-Michael Greenburg, a law school graduate and former SUSD student who said he became interested in the investigation surrounding SUSD’s spending practices after reading news coverage last year.
“Birdwell used her position to ask for discounts from vendors supplying goods and services to HUSD that would not be available to the general public,” said Greenburg, which he suggested could be a violation of state law.
UPDATE: In a written statement on Tuesday, Birdwell said she "did not receive anything of value, or gain any personal benefit." Her full response is available here.
The documents also reveal Birdwell turned to Robichaux seeking thousands of dollars in funding to move Higley’s annual "Summer Leadership Conference" last-minute to the lavish Ritz-Carlton hotel near Tucson.
According to a Governing Board agenda dated July 9, 2013, the upcoming conference was scheduled to be held July 16 in the district office board room.
Birdwell sent Robichaux an inquiry on July 8 about potential funding sources for the event. Days later, Robichaux paid the Ritz-Carlton $6,750 to secure a three-hour presentation for up to 100 people to be held July 15, 2013, according to the documents.
“It's very clear to me that this is a quid pro quo relationship,” Greenburg said.
In 2012, Robichaux’s firm was awarded a contract to work on two multi-million dollar middle schools in Higley Unified, which the Arizona Tax Research Association called “certainly the most expensive middle schools Arizona has ever built.”
Dr. Birdwell was hired by Scottsdale Unified shortly after leaving Higley. Eight days after she started her new superintendent job, Scottsdale Unified issued a purchase order to Robichaux’s firm that critics consider a "no-bid contract." The district awarded the firm a total of five projects, according to a report from an attorney hired by SUSD.
Attempts to reach Dr. Birdwell Monday were unsuccessful. Scottsdale Unified spokeswoman Erin Helm said she was unable to provide a comment because district offices were closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Helm said she would make inquiries and provide more information when district offices reopened on Tuesday.
The district’s procurement process has attracted the attention of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. Spokeswoman Mia Garcia confirmed last month that the AG’s office has two open investigations involving Scottsdale Unified and procurement, but declined further comment.
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