January 18, 2007
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has launched an extensive investigation into misconduct within the county’s community college district.
Wednesday morning, deputies with search warrants confi scated a bevy of internal records and computer equipment from multiple campuses.
The sheriff’s investigators have primarily focused on fraud cases at the Maricopa County Community College District from the past fi ve years. Those cases have been documented by internal auditors and included fi ndings of falsifi ed enrollment, theft, misappropriation of scholarship money and nepotism.
“There’s a lot of smoke there and we’re going to try and put out the fi re,” Sheriff Joe Arpaio said.
Deputies served warrants at the colleges in Mesa, Scottsdale and Estrella Mountain in Phoenix and the district’s headquarters in Tempe.
The sheriff’s investigation is in its infancy. Arpaio said he does not know whether it will produce criminal charges
against any current or past college employees.
Wednesday’s searches followed a flurry of media reports about misconduct at the nation’s largest junior college system. The Tribune published a series of articles in October detailing the fraud cases now targeted by the sheriff.
The newspaper found that malfeasance had gone for years largely unpunished, with colleges routinely shifting troublesome employees to new jobs or allowing them to resign quietly. When criminal activity surfaced, district officials did not notify law enforcement.
MCCCD Chancellor Rufus Glasper acknowledged the Tribune’s findings and began several internal inquiries to find weaknesses in the district’s policies that allowed problems to persist for years.
“Any time we are made aware of potential wrongdoing, we will investigate and we will take action,” Glasper said Wednesday in a prepared statement.
At the colleges, the scene was chaotic.
Students were attending classes on the second day of the semester while deputies blocked off buildings, pored over stacks of records and trucked away possible evidence.
Mesa Community College’s cashier’s office was closed, forcing students to postpone paying tuition or asking why they have not received financial aid checks.
Deputies reviewing materials at MCC refused to comment. Arpaio said he would not disclose what was removed from each college or what possible wrongdoing it was related to.
In 2003, a district auditor found that at least $4,900 in travel cash had gone missing from the Mesa campus’ athletic department, records show. That inquiry began when a cashier reported that unused cash advances had never been returned.
The performing arts center and music buildings at Scottsdale Community College were scoured for hours Wednesday and photographed. Deputies checked employees to ensure no one attempted to smuggle out documents.
Virginia Stahl, vice president for student affairs at the Scottsdale campus, said investigators were looking for documents tied to the Maricopa Institute for Art and Entertainment Technology.
An auditor found that for several years, the performing arts program had enrolled its employees and relatives in classes to protect them from cancellation and took thousands of dollars in scholarships to pay its bills that should have gone to other students.
The Tribune investigation discovered that the program’s director had been paid tens of thousands of dollars for work his salary already covered and for work he never did.
SCC is up for reaccreditation, which will determine if the college can continue to offer degrees.
A reaccreditation team is scheduled to inspect the campus next month, but the sheriff’s investigation is not expected to influence the process, Stahl said.
“We’re doing business as usual. We’re serving our students,” she said.
Arpaio said his deputies also gave a court order to MCC’s Business & Industry Institute. Glasper recently put the institute’s director on administrative leave over concerns — first aired in local press reports — that she misappropriated district funds.
However, district spokeswoman Chris Chesrown said the colleges do not know that deputies removed anything from the institute’s offices in downtown Mesa.
“The sheriff’s department refused to give the district’s legal counsel a copy of any warrant that may have been served” on the business institute, Chesrown said.
MCCCD had for weeks provided Arpaio’s investigators with all the materials they had requested, Chesrown said. As a result, district officials expressed confusion as to why the sheriff sought court orders to pry open the colleges.
County Attorney Andrew Thomas confirmed that the colleges had cooperated but said the warrants were still necessary. He declined to elaborate.
Arpaio said his office began its probe about a month ago, but wouldn’t say what prompted it.
Jerry Walker, a district governing board member and Glasper critic, said it might not have begun in Arpaio’s office.
On election night in November, a week after the Tribune series ran, Walker said he was at a party with Thomas and approached the top prosecutor.
“I’d asked him if he would please help us get to the bottom of all this,” Walker said, “and he said that he was involved in it.”
— Tribune writers Gary Grado and Mike Sakal contributed to this report.