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Ex-Chicago schools chief pleads guilty in federal corruption scandal

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s last hand-picked schools chief plead guilty to wire fraud in federal court Tuesday before apologizing to the children, teachers and families of Chicago. 

 
“I am terribly sorry,” Barbara Byrd-Bennett said after her arraignment at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. “They deserved much more. Much more than I gave to them.” 
 
Byrd-Bennett, 66, admitted to steering $23 million in Chicago Public Schools no-bid contracts to her former employer, a company called SUPES Academy. In return, she expected to get 10 percent of those contracts in the form of a signing bonus when she retired from the district’s top job. 
 
After entering a guilty plea, Byrd-Bennett kissed and hugged her husband and daughter and left the courtroom. 
 
A sentencing hearing is scheduled for the end of January, but a plea agreement signed by Byrd- Bennett outlines how much prison time she could get under federal sentencing guidelines. 

 

Byrd-Bennett Plea Agreement

If Byrd-Bennett cooperates with the investigation, prosecutors agreed to seek a sentence of about seven to nine years, which is below those sentencing guidelines. Byrd-Bennett’s attorneys would be free to ask for an even shorter sentence -- but the decision is ultimately up to U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang. Judge Chang will not be restricted by the plea agreement Byrd-Bennett reached Tuesday with prosecutors.

The two owners of SUPES Academy, Gary Solomon, 47, and Thomas Vranas, 34, and one of its subsidiaries, Synesi Associates, have also been charged with mail and wire fraud, as well as bribery and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.

Solomon and Vranas are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday at 2:00 p.m.

The indictment

The indictment, released last Thursday, outlines how Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas brazenly communicated over email about how she would steer contracts to their companies. In return, the men would put aside 10 percent of the contracts’ value into a pair of trusts under the names of two of her relatives, likely her twin grandsons.

One email from Byrd-Bennett to Solomon states: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit. (:”

Another email from Solomon to Byrd-Bennett explained how the money would be paid out as a “signing bonus” when she retired from CPS. He wrote, “If you only join (SUPES Academy) for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.”

The largest of three contracts SUPES Academy held with CPS was approved unanimously, on a no-bid basis, just one month after the mayoral-appointed Board of Education voted to shut down 50 public schools in the city.

Questions about Byrd-Bennett’s ties to the company awarded a no-bid contract to train school principals were first raised by Catalyst Chicago’s Sarah Karp. Catalyst’s story pointed out that many other non-profit organizations and local universities did similar work in the past; Karp also reported on complaints from principals who felt the SUPES trainings were a waste of time.

Mayor Emanuel and his hand-picked school board did nothing when those stories broke in 2013 -- and now he’s taking a lot of heat for failing to look into concerns, or take action. On Monday, Emanuel admitted that his office was aware of the $20.5 million no-bid contract with SUPES, and did ask “hard questions.”

Outside the courthouse, before Byrd-Bennett’s arraignment Tuesday, a group of protesters and local lawmakers reiterated a call for Chicago to have an elected school board, not one appointed by the mayor.

“I was appalled,” said State Rep. Robert Martwick (D-19). “I have never seen such blatant, overt, shameless corruption, ever.”

Martwick is sponsoring a bill in Springfield that would change the governance structure of the Chicago Board of Education, giving citizens the ability to elect people to its members. But he said the scandal is not the reason the city should have an elected school board.

“Corruption can occur whether it’s elected or appointed,” Martwick said. “It serves to shine a light on the fact that it’s the culture that we’ve had there, where they’re unaccountable, that led to this.”

Pamela Johnson, a nurse who came out to support the idea of an elected school board, said she thinks the “20-year experiment” of having the mayor control the schools has been a “flat-out failure.” She also said she’s not convinced the mayor didn’t know what was going on.

“You appoint your cronies, and you know, nobody looks,” Johnson said. “Nobody looks under the carpet to find all the dead roaches. You just kinda vacuum the carpet.”

Emanuel did not have any public appearances scheduled Tuesday. Mayoral spokeswoman Kelley Quinn released a statement saying the corruption scandal “continues to be a matter for the courts.” And CPS officials said the district has put steps in place to make sure another Byrd-Bennett type scandal never happens again.

Avoiding another Byrd-Bennett scandal 

In a letter addressed to Ald. Will Burns (4th), schools chief Forrest Claypool and Board President Frank Clark said their objective is “to ensure that every possible dollar reaches our classrooms, and to assure taxpayers that their resources are being used wisely.”

According to the letter, which CPS sent to City Hall reporters, the district brought in the private consulting firm Accenture last June to conduct a “third-party review” of the sole-source contracting process.

Letter to Alderman Will Burns, 10-13-15

CPS officials said they have already adopted several of the firm’s recommendations, including publishing sole and single-source contracts online “to create transparency” and to alert other possible vendors.

The letter states that over the last few months, CPS has undertaken a “top to bottom audit that may also result in further policy changes if deemed necessary for transparency and to ensure that all the right checks and balances are in place.”

District officials indicated more changes could be on the way, like adding a requirement that requestors of single or sole source contracts share any past or present business or personal relationships with the vendor.

The letter states that the City’s Inspector General Joe Ferguson and the Commissioner of the Department of Procurement Services will share their reform ideas with the district, as well.

Burns, who chairs the City Council committee on education, said he requested this information, and will continue to ask for updates. He said these details are an important part of aldermen’s interest in “making sure CPS does what it’s supposed to do with our dollars and we begin the process of restoring the public’s faith in CPS.”

He noted that restoring that faith is especially important as CPS looks to Springfield to fill a $500-million budget hole.

 

Rob Wildeboer contributed to this story.
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @wbezeducationLauren Chooljian covers Chicago politics for WBEZ.  Follow her @laurenchooljian.

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