The disgraced former head of the Chicago Public Schools was sentenced to four and a-half years in federal prison Friday, bringing to a close an ugly schools bribery scandal and the latest chapter in Chicago’s long and sordid history of public corruption.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s sentence, handed down after she sobbed in court, is significantly less than the seven and a half years requested by prosecutors. It’s also below the seven years her partner in the bribery plot, Gary Solomon, received. Earlier on Friday, businessman Tom Vranas received an 18 month prison term for his part in the kickback plot.
Solomon was the majority owner of the firm at the heart of the scheme, SUPES Academy. Vranas was his partner.
Byrd-Bennett told U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang that leading CPS was stressful and that she was overwhelmed. She mentioned one incident during the school closings when someone shouted at her that she will be responsible for killing black children. She said this especially hurt because she'd spent her career trying to protect black children.
She said Solomon became a confidant, but she she took full responsibility for her crimes.
"I now know I was wrong,"she said. "My sense of entitlement and ego didn't see it at the time."
Judge Chang said he gave Byrd-Bennett less than the seven years prosecutors recommended because she's almost 68 years old, failed to actually make money from the scheme and eventually cooperated with prosecutors.
A large group gathered at the Dirksen federal courthouse for the sentencing and included the current head of the school system Forrest Claypool, CPS Board President Frank Clark, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Byrd-Bennett family members
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who tapped Byrd-Bennett to run the schools in 2012, was ready with a harsh critique.
"Barbara betrayed the public trust,” Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins said in a statement. “She turned her back on the very children she was entrusted to serve, and the children of Chicago are owed much better than that. "
The Chicago Teachers Union called out Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel.
“Byrd-Bennett’s tenure as the head of CPS, in addition to her and Emanuel’s destruction of dozens of school communities in 2013, cost the district $20 million in cronyism and privatization, which continues to this day,” the union said in a statement.
Prosecutors tried to paint Solomon as the mastermind of the bribery conspiracy, while Solomon’s attorneys countered that Byrd-Bennett called the shots because she “repeatedly and aggressively” asked Solomon for money.
Byrd-Bennett, 67, admitted in 2015 to a kickback scheme involving $23.5 million in no-bid contracts for her former employer. In exchange for steering the firm contracts she was promised a 10 percent cut -- worth hundreds of thousands of dollars -- after she left CPS.
She pleaded guilty to a felony count of wire fraud in a deal with federal prosecutors. Byrd-Bennett faced up to 20 years, but prosecutors recommended seven and a half years because she eventually fully cooperated with federal law enforcement. This came after authorities said she lied to them multiple times.
Byrd-Bennett had asked for a prison term of three and a half years in prison and community service.
Much of the case was built on damning emails sent from Byrd-Bennett’s personal email address. The most infamous was one sent to Solomon demanding a bribe: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit :)”
Emanuel named her to take over the school district in fall of 2012 after his first pick, Jean Claude-Brizard, resigned under pressure. Byrd-Bennett helped end the 2012 Chicago teachers strike.
Her first order of business was overseeing the closing of 50 schools -- an historic number. A painful process, parents and community members hurled insults at Byrd-Bennett and other CPS officials.
In June 2013, a month after the schools were shuttered, the Chicago Board of Education approved a $20.5 million contract for SUPES Academy. After two smaller contracts, the company was picked to train Chicago’s 600 principals. It was the largest no-bid contract awarded by CPS and highly unusual. The school district typically only used the no-bid process for things such as specific software or utilities.
In the aftermath of the Byrd-Bennett scandal, the school system’s overhauled its no-bid process.
Internal CPS emails reveal that officials in Emanuel’s administration, as well as some inside CPS, raised questions about the SUPES contract. But no one pushed the issue, knowing it was important to Byrd-Bennett.
A former school teacher and top administrator in New York City, she spent eight years as superintendent in Cleveland. She then went to help steer the troubled Detroit school system.
After leaving Detroit, she consulted for SUPES. That Wilmette-based company hired current and former school leaders to train current administrators. Its majority owner, Solomon, worked with Emanuel’s administration as the mayor hired CPS’ leadership team.
Solomon, helping the Emanuel’s team put together its school leadership team, brought Byrd-Bennett to Chicago to help mentor the chief education officer. But that administrator quickly left CPS and Byrd-Bennett, in an odd arrangement, was contracted to become the chief education officer.
But she only did so with the understanding that she would receive a cut of any CPS contract with SUPES, court documents show. Solomon agreed it would come as a “signing bonus” when she came back to SUPES after leaving CPS.
In one email, Solomon wrote of her eventual return to his company: “If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day. Regardless, it will be paid out on day one.”
At Vranas’ sentencing earlier Friday, he apologized to his family and the students of Chicago. A large group of his family members were with him in court. In addition to the 18 months, Vranas will serve three years of supervised release. Solomon was the majority owner of the firm at the heart of the scheme, SUPES Academy. Vranas was his partner.
“What I did was wrong and now I have tainted all the good I have done,” Vranas, 36, said. “I will regret this for the rest of my life.”
Vranas was expected to get a shorter sentence than Byrd-Bennett and Solomon because he only learned of the kickback plot after it already was underway. But in sentencing Vranas, Judge Chang said he needed to send a message of deterrence, especially because crimes like his are hard to detect.
He noted, though, that Vranas was less culpable than his partner and mentor Solomon. The judge also said he had received more letters of support for Vranas than he had ever seen.