Ex-East Valley school superintendent indicted in bid-rigging scheme

Jul 23, 2021, 10:25 AM | Updated: 12:43 pm
Denise Birdwell, former Higley and Scottsdale school district superintendent. (Scottsdale Unified S...
Denise Birdwell, former Higley and Scottsdale school district superintendent. (Scottsdale Unified School District Photo, File)
(Scottsdale Unified School District Photo, File)

PHOENIX – A former East Valley school district leader and three other people are facing charges for their alleged involvement in a bid-rigging conspiracy related to a multimillion-dollar construction project, authorities said.

Denise Birdwell was among those indicted July 13 by a grand jury on a variety of counts related to the 2012 procurement process for two new middle schools while she was the Higley Unified School District superintendent, according to an Arizona Auditor General report released Thursday.

“Dr. Birdwell’s position as superintendent seems to have influenced Higley employees to comply with her directions to perform problematic functions such as providing material project information to specific prospective vendors and spending $6 million of restricted Adjacent Ways Fund monies on unauthorized purposes,” the report said.

“For example, some of these employees viewed Dr. Birdwell’s actions as questionable or were concerned about questioning her decisions because they feared retribution.”

The Arizona Auditor General investigation covered financial records from May 2012 to April 2016.

Birdwell, who later worked as superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified School District, faces 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 tax return, and conspiracy, according to the report.

Birdwell allegedly helped rig the bidding and received payments from vendors who were awarded the $2,557,125 project with the Higley district, which has schools in Gilbert and Queen Creek. She also allegedly authorized the unlawful use of $6 million in funds to cover some of the project’s cost.

Gary Aller and Steven Nielsen, who worked for a development services company that was chosen to work on the project, were each charged with fraudulent schemes and practices, fraudulent schemes and artifices, and conspiracy.

Kay Hartwell Hunnicutt, described in the report as a “close acquaintance” of Birdwell, was charged with three counts of filing a false tax return.

Birdwell retired from Higley in 2015. She was hired in Scottsdale the next year, but her contract was terminated in 2018 because she allegedly failed to disclose interests in a construction company that worked on the Higley project.

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Ex-East Valley school superintendent indicted in bid-rigging scheme