By Terri Jo Neff
An investigation by the Arizona Auditor General has led to criminal charges being filed earlier this month against several people involved with the building of two new schools for the Higley Unified School District in Gilbert, including the district’s former superintendent, it was announced late Thursday.
Angela Denise Birdwell was indicted July 13 by a state grand jury for 18 counts related to procurement fraud, misuse of public monies, fraudulent schemes and practices, conflict of interest, filing a false state tax return, fraudulent schemes and artifices, and conspiracy. She served as Higley’s superintendent from 2009 until her retirement in 2015.
“Public officials with oversight authority have a responsibility to properly manage the administration of money and property entrusted to them and must ensure that sufficient internal controls are designed and implemented to protect those assets,” according to the Auditor General’s report. “Nevertheless, a system of internal controls will not succeed when those in a position to oversee those operations are perpetrating unlawful behavior and concealing their misconduct.”
Among the more serious issues identified by the Auditor General was Birdwell’s possible misuse of public monies from December 2012 to November 2013 when she authorized or caused the unlawful use of $6 million in restricted public funds toward construction of two new schools in the Higley district, which serves about 10,000 PK-12 students.
Also indicted were Gary Aller and Steven Nielsen, both corporate officers of Educational Facilities Development Services (EFDS) which was awarded a $2.5 million project development service contract related to construction of the new schools. Investigators believe EFDS had access to “early and exclusive Project information” which provided the company an advantage over other prospective vendors.
Public records show Aller and Nielsen founded EFDS in 2012 just two weeks before the Higley District issued an RFP for project development services. The men are each charged with three felonies related to fraudulent schemes and practices, conspiracy, and fraudulent schemes and artifices. There is also an allegation Birdwell violated state procurement laws in connection to the EFDS contract.
“Dr. Birdwell was 1 of 3 selection committee members, and she evaluated EFDS with the only perfect score and recommended Higley award EFDS the Project development services contract, which the Higley Governing Board approved on July 12, 2012,” the report states.
Meanwhile, three felonies related to filing of a false state tax return were brought by the state grand jury against Kay Hartwell Hunnicutt, an attorney described in the Auditor General’s report as being a “close acquaintance” of Birdwell, with whom she shared a home as well as a checking account.
According to the Auditor General, Birdwell indirectly received or benefited from $43,000 paid by Hunt & Caraway Architects Ltd., which served as the district’s procurement advisor and was part of the EFDS development team. Hunt & Caraway, whose now deceased president was never registered in Arizona as an architect, issued checks to Hunnicutt or Hunnicutt’s law office, which were then deposited in a checking account held jointly by Birdwell and Hunnicutt.
Concerns have been rife for years about misconduct related to the school construction projects, according to State Rep. Jake Hoffman (R-LD12), who served as a Higley district board member from 2013 to 2015. Hoffman says he and another board member were criticized by Higley district administrators in response their attempts to look into concerns at the time.
“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,” Hoffman said, adding that he plans to use the Auditor General’s findings to push for education reform during next year’s legislative session.
After retiring from Higley, Birdwell received eight checks totaling $57,000 from Hunt & Caraway before she was hired in 2016 by the Scottsdale Unified School District as its superintendent through June 2019.
The memo section on two of the Hunt & Caraway checks referred to “consulting” but the company failed to provide investigators any documents supporting the purposes of the checks.
But Birdwell’s time at SUSD was cut short, when she was given a $150,000 contract buyout in April 2018 after district officials alleged she failed to disclose a “substantial, personal interest” with Hunt & Caraway, which billed the Scottsdale District for nearly $2 million after Birdwell became its superintendent.
Birdwell is accused of not claiming the payments as income on her state income tax returns.
Court dates have not been announced for the four defendants who will stand trial in Maricopa County Superior Court.HUSD INDICTMENT