Maricopa County’s top school administrator stands accused of paying political insiders thousands of dollars in school district funds in an effort to land a job with the Bush administration, along with several other financial misdeeds, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday.
Following an 11-month investigation, a grand jury indicted Sandra Dowling on 25 counts that include stealing and misusing more than $1.8 million from a fund she controlled as Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools, bid-rigging and awarding contracts to her son and a firm with which she was employed, and stealing and misusing $163,000 in donated money by putting it into her own private foundation.
Also, offi cials accuse Dowling of spending $207,000 in county school district funds on federal lobbyists, in part because she sought an appointment with the Bush administration.
The case “involves an extremely complex set of documents and a wide variety of potential charges,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said during a news conference Monday. “It was a financially complex case.”
Dowling’s son, Dennis Dowling, was also indicted, as were Marc Frazier, district director of administrative services, Joseph Lopez, district director of facilities and security, and Rexanne Meredith, district executive director of community services.
Dowling, best known for founding the Thomas J. Pappas Schools for homeless children, was served with the indictment Monday and is scheduled to be arraigned Nov. 29.
She was charged with two counts of theft, 10 counts of misuse of public funds, four counts of procurement code fraud, five counts of conflict of interest and four counts of prohibited “acquisition of certain interest by public officials.”
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said his office will continue investigating.
Dowling attorney Craig Mehrens said his client has “not taken a single cent,” and that officials “have no evidence this money went into her pocket.”
Also, he said Dowling plans to remain in her current position.
According to the law, Dowling can stay in office pending the outcome of the trial. If convicted, the judge can strip the superintendent of her office.
In July, Dowling filed a $22 million claim against the county, saying accusations of criminal misconduct had destroyed her reputation.
The threat of a lawsuit is the latest chapter in a battle between Dowling and the county that started earlier this year when the sheriff’s office began an investigation into Dowling’s management.
In January, sheriff’s deputies served a warrant on the superintendent’s downtown offices on suspicion of bid-rigging, misuse of public funds and nepotism.
The investigation came after authorities received a tip that the district had a large, unexplained deficit.
A preliminary audit later found the district had a $4.7 million deficit and didn’t follow proper contracting or recordkeeping procedures.
It also found the district hired four of Dowling’s children and a son-in-law, a practice allowed by district policy but not state law.
She has been elected to five terms as the county school superintendent, whose duties include serving as the fiscal agent for school districts, maintaining records for home-schooled students, and providing services to school districts and private and charter schools.
The Maricopa County Regional School District comprises 12 schools with a total enrollment of about 1,600 students.
Roughly half of those students are homeless children attending one of three schools named for Thomas J. Pappas.
According to state law, the county superintendent sits as the one-member governing board for the district.
Dowling opened the first of two Phoenix Pappas schools in 1989 and a Tempe campus at 1640 E. Apache Blvd. in 2001.
She also successfully lobbied lawmakers to change federal law so homeless children could be segregated.
Dowling has been the sole board member, with full spending discretion for the district, which since 2000 has run budget deficits ranging from $544,000 to $3.7 million in 2005, according to the warrant affidavit.
Sandra Dowling’s grand jury indictment includes:
• Theft and misuse of $1,859,000 from the Indirect Cost Fund she controlled as Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools.
• Spending $207,000 in Maricopa County Regional School District funds on federal lobbyists, in part to acquire an appointment with the Bush administration.
• Bid-rigging and awarding a $2 million real estate sales contract for the sale of county school district-owned vacant land to a real estate firm that employed her.
• Bid-rigging and awarding about $81,000 in county school district landscape maintenance contracts to her son, Dennis Dowling.
• Theft and misuse of about $163,000 by diverting funds that had been donated to the county school district into a private foundation she controlled, and by using the county school district funds to pay the salary of a fundraiser for that foundation.
- The Associated Press contributed to this report.