The man behind a bribery scheme that brought down former Chicago Public Schools Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced Friday to seven years in federal prison.
“I believe that this is motivated by greed and not need,” U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang told Gary Solomon at his sentencing. “You were a successful businessman. You did not need to do this.”
Prosecutors said Solomon played a major role in a multimillion-dollar bribery scandal that ended the career of Byrd-Bennett’s career. Solomon pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge last year and admitted promising kickbacks to Byrd-Bennett in exchange for lucrative school contracts to education consulting companies that Solomon co-owned, including SUPES Academy and Synesi. Byrd-Bennett will be sentenced April 28.
Chang said he wanted his sentence to send a message, especially about something as important as education.
“It’s not always easy to detect this type of corruption” he said. “We need a clear general deterrent.”
Solomon made a point of starting off his remarks to the court with an apology.
“I am deeply remorseful to CPS, the teachers and the leaders there,” Solomon said in federal court. “I have nothing but respect for them. If my behavior made their lives more difficult, I deeply apologize for it.”
Before handing down the sentence, the judge offered some insight into who he believed was most responsible for the bribery scheme that rocked the nation’s third-largest school district.
“On one hand, I don’t think Solomon was the mastermind the government made him out to be,” Chang said from the bench. “He was a savvy businessman who saw an opportunity to enter into a standard agreement in which Barbara Byrd-Bennett would do everything she could to get business for SUPES and Synesi.”
Federal prosecutors had recommended nine years for Solomon. His attorney had asked for no more than 18 months.
The judge foreshadowed a significant sentence for Solomon with a ruling earlier on Friday. He said the bribes in this case were to be based off Solomon firm’s profits from all three contracts he had inked with CPS, rather than just one, as Solomon’s lawyers had argued. That increased the base amount off which the bribes would have been paid, from $254,000 to $2.9 million.
Prosecutors argued that Solomon was the ringleader of the bribery scheme by offering to pay Byrd-Bennett if she gave him the contracts. They also contended Solomon had falsified documents and deleted emails to hide his tracks.
“Solomon was the mastermind of the corrupt arrangement,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum.
But Solomon’s attorneys countered that Byrd-Bennett called the shots because she “repeatedly and aggressively” asked Solomon for money.
Byrd-Bennett and the co-owner of Solomon’s companies, Tom Vranas, both face sentencing on April 28. She pleaded guilty in late 2015 and, as part of her plea agreement, the government recommended a nearly seven-and-a-half year prison term.
Solomon owned three Wilmette-based companies: SUPES Academy, which offered training to school administrators; ProAct, a principal search firm; and Synesi, which aided school districts in undertaking academic turnarounds. Before starting these companies, Solomon was a dean at Niles West High School in the northern suburbs and a sales executive for The Princeton Review.
According to media reports, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration brought Solomon in as a consultant in the early days of the mayor’s first term in 2011. Jean-Claude Brizard was the CPS CEO at the time. Brizard said Solomon was instrumental in bringing in Byrd-Bennett as the chief education officer. Byrd-Bennett previously worked as a consultant for Synesi and a master teacher for SUPES Academy.
But in Solomon’s court filings, he says the mayor’s office and CPS recruited Byrd-Bennett away from his companies. After Brizard stepped down, Emanuel in late 2012 promoted Byrd-Bennett to the CEO job.
After Byrd-Bennett took over the top job, SUPES Academy first worked with CPS staff under a contract with the Chicago Public Education Fund, a philanthropic venture fund.
When the Chicago Public Education Fund decided to stop funding SUPES, Solomon turned to CPS. SUPES received three no-bid contracts from the district totalling $23.5 million in 2012 and 2013. With this money, SUPES provided training for all of the district’s middle managers, called network chiefs, and principals.
Solomon was charged with bribery and honest services wire fraud and pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud. That followed the guilty pleas of Byrd-Bennett and Vranas.
Solomon admitted that he agreed to give Byrd-Bennett a signing bonus of over $2 million after she left CPS in exchange for steering contracts to SUPES. Bank accounts were set up in the names of her relatives to transfer money without raising suspicion.
Prosecutors said Solomon made $5.68 million from SUPES Academy between 2011 and 2015 and that CPS was his most lucrative contract.
Why is this important?
The length of Solomon’s sentence could be interpreted as a signal of who the judge believes shoulders greater blame for the bribery scandal, Solomon or Byrd-Bennett.
In seeking a long sentence, prosecutors also were hoping to send a message of deterrence “to individuals and companies doing business with the Chicago Public Schools, the City of Chicago and every other unit of state and local government.”
It could also send a message to school leaders across the country.
While no other superintendents elsewhere were charged in connection with this scheme, several superintendents worked as master teachers for SUPES at the same time their school districts had contracts with SUPES or another Solomon company. Once those relationships came to light, one superintendent received an official reprimand and others faced intense questioning by their school board members.