GILBERT, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Four people have been indicted following an investigation into alleged financial mismanagement in the Higley Unified School District.
Among those those named in the indictment is a former Superintendent of both the Higley and Scottsdale Unified School Districts.
Dr. Denise Birdwell is accused of pocketing money in exchange for district contracts. Birdwell was one of four people indicted on felony charges after an investigation into the Higley Unified School District. The investigation looked into allegations that the district misused public funds.
[CLICK HERE to read full report.]
The Arizona Auditor General’s Office says it conducted a financial investigation of certain Higley Unified School District transactions between May 2012 and April 2016. The investigation dates back to the time when Higley Unified planned to build 2 new middle schools, and hired a private developer to design, finance and build the new facilities.
According to the report, investigators found Birdwell, along with two employees of vendor Educational Facilities Development Services (Gary Aller and Steve Nielson) may have conspired to get around school district rules in order to make sure Higley’s $2,557,125 contract went to a certain vendor. The report goes on to say Birdwell, Aller, and Nielsen may have concealed their wrongdoing by certifying false information. It also says Birdwell may have misused $6 million of public monies.
The charges from the investigation are as follows:
- Denise Birdwell -18 felony counts related to procurement fraud, fraudulent schemes and practices, fraudulent schemes and artifices, misuse of public monies, conflict of interest, filing a false return, and conspiracy.
- Gary Aller - 3 felony counts related to fraudulent schemes and practices, fraudulent schemes and artifices, and conspiracy.
- Steve Nielsen - 3 felony counts related to fraudulent schemes and practices, fraudulent schemes and artifices, and conspiracy.
- Kay Hartwell Hunnicutt - 3 felony counts related to filing a false return.
Birdwell became superintendent at Higley Unified in 2009 and held that position until her June 2015 retirement. Scottsdale Unified School District hired Birdwell as its superintendent from January 2016 through June 2019. But in 2018, the Scottsdale Governing Board dismissed her.
At the time, district investigators said they found evidence 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.
We've reached out to the Arizona Attorney General's Office for a comment but have not heard back.
Rep. Jake Hoffman was was elected to the Higley School Board in 2012 and served from 2013 to 2015.
“This is truly a sad day for the Higley Unified School District and the students and families it serves,” said Representative Hoffman. “The level of apparent corruption is staggering and heartbreaking. I am proud to have actively fought against this abuse of power, misuse of taxpayer monies, and blatant disregard for the law during my tenure on the Higley governing board.”
“As a result of these findings, I will be looking at opportunities for education reform legislation to introduce next session in order to ensure that crooked administrators stop bleeding our schools of their resources and start putting students and teachers first,” added Hoffman.