The former chief financial officer for the Scottsdale Unified School District has been indicted on fraud and conflict of interest charges.
She's accused of approving district payments to her sister's company, and not disclosing the relationship. Laura Smith has since stepped down, but she and her attorney argue that we haven't heard the whole story.
Some SUSD parents started sounding the alarm about issue at the district last year. Since then, the COO also stepped down, and the superintendent was fired.
"I don't think the whole story has been told," Smith told us.
She went from being a top administrator to a defendant facing 11 criminal charges.
"When the indictment came down, I was just shell-shocked, absolutely shell-shocked," Smith said.
When she joined SUSD in February of last year, she said the district was already doing work with a company called Professional Group Public Consulting, or PGPC. Her sister, Caroline Brackley, is part-owner and runs the company. Smith also worked there and had a financial stake in the company. Smith filled out a conflict of interest form at the end of February.
"I wanted to double down make sure everybody knew I was part of that organization even before I was hired," Smith said.
But in the form, she makes no mention of her sister. We asked why.
"The form is confusing," Smith said. "I remember saying, 'This form is confusing,'" Smith said.
Smith told us she was asked to fill out two more conflict-of-interest forms the following May to include more specific information about PGPC.
Smith said she believes she was asked to do this after the district received public records requests inquiring about her relationship to PGPC and Brackley.
Smith's attorney, Richard Gaxiola, argues that Smith had disclosed her outside employment on her application, mentioning PGPC, and listing Brackley as her reference. What complicates the issue is that, as CFO, Smith approved tens of thousands of dollars in district payments to PGPC. Smith said the vendor for those payments wasn't clear.
"Obviously, the CFO cannot touch every purchase order," Smith said.
An attorney hired to do an independent audit found Smith physically signed purchase orders for more than $16,000, and her computer-generated stamp of approval was on purchase orders for more than $43,000. She said she did not see the name "PGPC" on those orders. Smith also maintains that she never personally benefited and that a few months after getting hired by SUSD, she asked PGPC to buy her out.
"I see the concerns and that's why I specifically went over with Mr. O'brien and signed a conflict of interest," Smith said.
"We're literally talking about nearly half a billion dollars that was (sic) under the review of my client as CFO, and there's not one shred of evidence to show one penny was mis-diverted," said Gaxiola.
He added that the grand jury wasn't told certain things that would be in Smith's favor; for example, the form that Smith called "confusing" has since been revised. And they claim top district employees knew about her sister relationship.
"It's a small community; everyone knows each other everyone knows the family dynamic and the business component," Gaxiola said.
The state filed a response to Gaxiola's request to have the indictment thrown out, based on the argument that the grand jury was not presented exculpatory evidence. The state said the role of a grand jury is not to hold a mini-trial - they only determine whether probable cause exists to believe that a crime was committed. They also said conflict of interest law doesn't have to show the accused benefited directly.
We reached out to SUSD for this story. They sent us the following statement:As this is a pending criminal matter, we cannot comment on it.We reached out to the Attorney General's office, but have not heard back.
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