State auditors claim a former Pinal County school district payroll clerk forged the signatures of her bosses — including that of the district superintendent — to pay herself more than $23,000 in unauthorized overtime pay over three years.
Denise Burden, who worked in the Eloy Elementary School District for nearly a decade, was indicted on 14 felony counts related to misuse of public monies and fraudulent schemes and forgery, according to a report released Thursday by the Arizona Office of the Auditor General.
Auditors found the district's financial discrepancies in January 2016 as they were doing a performance audit, which are done randomly on a handful of Arizona school districts each year.
They investigated further and found 18 different instances between August 2013 and January 2016 in which Burden forged signatures of her supervisors to give herself overtime hours, according to the report.
In total, Burden gave herself 807 overtime hours that never were approved by her supervisors during this span. That amounted to $23,504 in unauthorized pay.
"She embezzled monies from state appropriations that should have been used to support the district and benefit its students," the auditor general's report reads.
The amounts of overtime pay Burden gave herself during individual pay periods varied, according to auditors. In one pay period, the OT pay reached $979.59.
The district put Burden on administrative leave once it was notified by state auditors and then did its own internal review. Burden resigned in February 2016.
Burden's supervisors told state auditors that they were unaware of her ever working overtime.
When confronted, Burden told district officials and auditors that she got verbal approval for some of the overtime she claimed in the three-year span. She also told them she knew that went against the district's unwritten protocols of documenting overtime requests and approvals.
Burden apologized to school officials, told them she had financial troubles and said she was ashamed of what she had done, according to the auditor's report.
This is at least the third instance in the past two years in which state auditors spotted alleged embezzlement in an Arizona school district.
State auditors released a report in August 2015 that claimed a former Roosevelt Elementary School District bookkeeper embezzled $31,000 from the district over two years.
Another state report released in December of that year accused a former Tolleson Union High School District bookstore manager of taking $120,000 from the district in a four-year span.
In each of these cases, the person held responsible was someone who had direct access to their school district's payroll or bookkeeping systems and had little to no oversight from the schools.
That was the same case in the Eloy district, which has just under 1,000 students enrolled, according to the auditor's report.
The district says it implemented a new payroll system that creates "detailed reports that are independently reviewed," according to the auditors' report.
Auditors also recommend in their report that the district create formal written policies on payroll management, which the district did not have when Burden was employed