Sandra D-Minus

Former employees hand county schools chief flunking grade in public ethics

Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools Sandra Dowling used county staff to help research and write papers for her master's degree and to work on her reelection campaign on county time, according to depositions taken earlier this year in a criminal case in which Dowling's involved.

The sworn interviews, which are part of an investigation into whether two former school officials offered Dowling a bribe, also suggest Dowling routinely used her county cellular phone and car for personal business without adequately reimbursing the taxpayers.

Dowling refuses to comment. But the complaints from former employees are part of the ongoing soap opera-esque saga that has consumed Dowling's office practically since the day she took the job in 1989.

Last summer, New Times reported on Dowling's autocratic behavior in office ("Board Games," August 28). Since that time, two of Dowling's employees, Judy Leiby and Candace Steill, have left.

Leiby quit, she says, in part because she believes she was treated poorly as a result of the article. She filed a grievance with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission even before the article was published.

Steill was fired; in sworn testimony, she says she believes she, too, was mistreated because of the story. (Leiby spoke on the record for the August story; Steill did not.)

In her elected position, Dowling wears two hats. As superintendent of schools, she oversees operations of all public schools in Maricopa County and fills board vacancies in the county's public school districts.

Separate from those duties, Dowling is also the sole member of the Maricopa County Regional School District's governing board. She reigns over a 200-employee, 2,000-student operation, with a $10 million annual budget, five school sites and programs all over the county.

The regional school district is designed to accommodate students, such as dropouts and kids with special needs, who are not served by other public schools.

Even her harshest critics agree that Dowling has done some good. For example, she was instrumental in founding the Thomas J. Pappas school for the homeless. But Dowling's naysayers agree she rules by intimidation.

A call has gone out to curb Dowling's power. Lawmakers are considering introducing legislation that would create a multiple-member board for the regional school district.

One of Dowling's biggest detractors in the depositions is Steill, who was fired November 28, the day after Thanksgiving. She has refused to comment for this story.

Another, Lee Cook, left last summer after working for the county schools for years. A confidentiality agreement prohibits release of details, but he left a year before his contract was up and was given an undisclosed amount of money.

But both have plenty to say as part of a criminal case involving William Dabb and Gerald George.

Dabb and George, former Phoenix-area school officials, were charged last year with attempting to bribe a public official. The allegation: that the two offered to get Dowling's husband a job if she would appoint someone they wanted to a school-board position. Dowling, suspecting a bribe, tape-recorded conversations between herself and the two men, in which they made such an offer.

This fall, George struck a deal with county prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a $5,000 fine, in exchange for testifying against Dabb.

George's attorney, Larry Debus, and his investigator, Russ Kimball, have spent months deposing current and former members of her staff.

Depositions obtained by New Times offer a glimpse at the inner workings of Dowling's office--from alleged misuse of county time to alleged sexual harassment to name-calling that ranges from the hilarious to the macabre.

Obviously, these are comments made by disgruntled current and former employees. But the depositions raise the possibility of illegal activities--and also raise questions about Dowling's leadership.

Tom Caldwell worked as associate superintendent of county schools for Dowling in the early '90s. Now superintendent of a school district in Michigan, he flew into town for his October deposition.

In the deposition, Caldwell admitted that he suspected that work he was asked to complete on county time had nothing to do with county business, but instead was research for papers used by Dowling in her master's degree courses at Arizona State University.

Lee Cook, former superintendent of the regional school district, was more blunt. In his deposition, he said, "My understanding is Tom Caldwell did many of her [Dowling's] reports for her Master's degree on . . . county time."

Cook says he never saw the work being performed himself, but heard directly about it from Caldwell and Jim Hippel, the county schools business manager, who Cook says also performed master's work for Dowling.

From Cook's deposition:
"Q. Is there any question in your mind that the papers that they were talking about were to further her personal education?

"A. No, that's definitely what it was for. We never used any of the information in the office."

Cook's other complaints run the gamut from misuse of county cars and cellular phones to using county employees to do campaign work.

Cook on the county car: "She used the [county] car extensively for personal use. She would take her kids to ball games. We would get a call from somebody complaining that she did that. She did use it for her own use to go back and forth to Flagstaff for her educational courses. But she would use the car as her own car."

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