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."

Cook on the county cell phone: "Her [Dowling's] cellular phone calls were unbelievable. They were always above $150 and there were so many personal calls on there that . . . we would complain that she can't use the phone for her personal calls. She'd end up giving a check for $10, $15. One time she felt that, I think, New Times or somebody was doing an article so she paid a higher amount. But she doesn't pay for her own personal usage on that. She just makes a token to look like she's paying."

Dowling's response, when Cook tried to take it up with her: "That she's the County School Superintendent and then she almost became comical because then she would say that she's the governor of Maricopa; because she's elected by the whole population."

In the deposition, Cook also accused Dowling of sexual harassment because of the way she sat. "She sat very unladylike. She would hike up her skirt. She would throw her knee up leaving nothing to your imagination as you would be sitting across from her."

Candace Steill, in her sworn testimony, lists a half-dozen males who complained to her about Dowling's posture. She calls Dowling's open-legged position "a Sharon Stone."

She mused, "I've wondered that if it was a form of intimidation, the way she--I can't believe some of the blatant--let's see. I'm trying to delicately put this--disregard. Most women would sit in a chair and make sure they cross their legs properly or would take a little more care."

Cook and Steill both allege that Dowling regularly used county staff to conduct campaign work, sometimes on county time.

Cook also recalled that Dowling was often preoccupied with finding her husband, Dennis, a job. (Dowling's son, Dennis Junior, works for the county regional school district; her daughter also used to work for the district. She's prohibited by law from hiring her husband at the district.)

Cook said that he was ordered to write a letter for Dennis Dowling, saying he'd completed an internship for his teaching certification--when he hadn't.

"I was told by Sandra to make sure that he would go out to East Valley and do an internship," Cook said. "He didn't show--the principal said something to me. I said something to Sandra. She said, 'Just give him a letter that states that he accomplished it.' And I know the principal at East Valley was upset, and I just felt it was an order from her, so I did it."

Cook also said that he believed Dowling lies: "I mean, she gave stories that she was kidnapped twice, not once, twice in her lifetime. And the reason she started the Pappas School [for the homeless] is because that's where she was thrown out of this car, absurd things.

". . . She said she had cancer. I don't know--as a matter of fact, she was supposedly in the hospital now with some type of growth or something, and originally it was supposed to be the size of a softball, and it was the size of a watermelon after she got done.

"But those who were close, [former spokesman] Jim Bloom, Mark Frazier, myself, when she'd tell these stories, I mean, you would just roll your eyes, because, you know, it wasn't true."

Cook admitted he felt foolish discussing any of it.
"It reminds me of my first--one of my first board members back in Pennsylvania. He said, 'Lee, never argue with a fool, because the people will not know who the fool is.'

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