Former Superintendent For Scottsdale, Higley School Districts Indicted

By Rocio Hernandez
Published: Friday, July 23, 2021 - 3:54pm
Updated: Friday, July 23, 2021 - 3:56pm

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Denise Birdwell
Mariana Dale/KJZZ
Denise Birdwell

A former superintendent of the Scottsdale and Higley unified school districts has been indicted as part of an investigation of possible misuse of public money tied to school construction.

A report by the Arizona Auditor General found that Denise Birdwell may have conspired with three other individuals employed by Higley district vendors to violate state procurement laws when the district awarded the nearly $2.6 million contract to Educational Facilities Development Services (EFDS). 

The report states that Gary Aller and Steven Nielsen with EFDS, and Birdwell "may have also violated a State law related to fraudulent schemes when they seemingly concealed their wrongdoing by certifying false information on Higley records, making what appear to be false attestations regarding following School District Procurement Rules for the (schools construction project)."

The report states Birdwell may have violated state conflict-of-interest laws when she received thousands of dollars from Hunt & Caraway Architects, who acted as the district's procurement advisor, and CORE Construction, a Higley vendor who's part of EFDS' development team, and failed to disclose her substantial interest. 

Birdwell and her close acquaintance, Kay Hartwell Hunnicutt, also accused of failing to claim these payments as part of the state income tax returns. 

The Arizona Auditor General submitted its report to the Arizona Attorney Office, which presented evidence on July 13 to the State Grand Jury. That resulted in the indictment of:

  • Birdwell on 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.
  • Aller on three felony counts related to fraudulent schemes and practices, fraudulent schemes and artifices, and conspiracy.
  • Nielsen on three felony counts related to fraudulent schemes and practices, fraudulent schemes and artifices, and conspiracy.
  • Hartwell Hunnicutt on three felony counts related to filing a false return.

Birdwell was superintendent at Higley until she retired in 2015. She later led the Scottsdale school district until was let go in 2018 amid similar financial allegations.

Birdwell was hired as a teacher at Fountain Hills Charter School in 2019, the Scottsdale Progress reported. KJZZ called and emailed the charter school to see Birdwell was still an employee there, but has not received a response. 

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