Mesa schools superintendent Ember Conley was ousted last week amid news that the school district's administrative spending was almost $1 million over budget last year. A complaint since has been filed with the Arizona Attorney General's Office alleging that Conley committed theft and embezzlement.
Conley has remained silent about her firing. Mesa Public Schools has denied Conley's firing is related to the overspending. But being accused of stealing from one's job is a situation Conley is familiar with: Her ex, Jose Lizarraga, was arrested by the FBI for fraud, attempted money laundering, and theft back in 2013 while he was working as a detective for the city of Maricopa Police.
He also filed for bankruptcy in July 2009, stating that he owed creditors $933,000, court records show.
Conley and Lizarraga married in 2012. Records show they likely divorced sometime after Lizarraga's arrest, given that they no longer live together and a 2018 deed on the county recorder's website refers to Conley as "an unmarried woman." Phoenix New Times was unable to reach Conley or Lizarraga by phone to confirm, and records on a possible divorce could not be found in Pinal County Court (where they married), Maricopa County Court (where Conley lives now), or Summit County Court (where Conley lived in 2013).
Heidi Hurst, Mesa Public Schools communications director, did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment. When New Times called the Mesa schools superintendent's phone number, a woman who answered said to email instead. An email seeking comment was not returned.
The reasons for Conley's ouster and whether the accusations of embezzlement have any truth to them are not yet known. But Lizarraga's history is pretty clear. On July 2, 2013, the Pinal County Attorney's Office issued a press release stating that Lizarraga had been charged with five felonies: fraudulent schemes, forgery, tampering with public records, attempted money laundering, and theft. The Pinal County Attorney at the time, Lando Voyles, requested the Pinal County Sheriff's Office investigate Lizarraga after becoming aware of "various irregularities with the detectives activities while on duty."
A joint PSCO and FBI investigation ensued, and Lizarraga eventually was questioned over the alleged theft of $1,300 while investigating a drug smuggling case on April 7, 2013. He was arrested and taken to jail that July, and was released one day later on a $10,000 bond.
Lizarraga pleaded not guilty. He resigned from the Maricopa Police Department days after his arrest. In 2014, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board revoked his peace officer certification, barring Lizarraga from again finding work as a law enforcement officer in the state of Arizona.
In February 2015, Lizarraga pleaded guilty to one count of fraudulent schemes and practices and one count of theft.
He was sentenced to two years in prison and three years of supervised probation upon release from prison.
Asked about the situation by a local newspaper in Park City, where she worked at the time, Conley said, "My job is to take care of my family and to take care of the students in Park City, and that is my focus."
Now, Conley has been placed on paid administrative leave, though the Mesa school board has refused to say why it's taking steps to fire Conley.
She was hired under a three-year contract about a year and a half ago. Under that contract, even if the board does fire her, the district will still have to pay her through the end of her contracted term.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich has received complaints raising questions about budgeting and spending at Mesa Public Schools, the largest school district in Arizona. Brnovich's office recently charged a former Apache Junction superintendent with theft and misuse of public funds for giving money to school administrators without approval.
Former Mesa School Board President Benjamin Smith filed a citizen complaint on November 22 against Conley accusing her of theft and embezzlement. The complaint could prompt the AG's office to initiate a criminal investigation.
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Mesa schools spokesperson Helen Hollands has denied that Conley's ouster is a criminal matter. School board officials have said Conley is not being fired for disciplinary reasons.
But the district was almost $800,000 over its budgeted administrative costs last year.
Over the summer, Mesa school board members approved over $400,000 in bonuses for district executives, the Arizona Republic reported. The bonuses went to members of the superintendent's cabinet. The Mesa schools district has defended the bonuses as a normal practice that "goes back more than a decade."
Yet the bonuses are the subject of Smith's complaint. Smith claims executives were given bonuses far beyond what the school board had approved.