Ex-CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleads guilty, tearfully apologizes to students – Chicago Tribune
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett faces up to about 7 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty Tuesday to steering multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts to an education consulting firm in exchange for the promise of lucrative kickbacks and other perks.
After pleading guilty to a single count of wire fraud, Byrd-Bennett stopped briefly to talk as she left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago. With tears in her eyes, she said she had a message for the schoolchildren and their families.
“I am terribly sorry, and I apologize to them. They deserve much more, much more than I gave to them,” she said.
Byrd-Bennett, 66, then left without taking questions from a crowd of reporters.
She is cooperating with prosecutors and has agreed to postpone her sentencing until after the charges against her co-defendants have been resolved.
According to her 22-page plea agreement, prosecutors have agreed to seek a sentence of about 7 1/2 years in prison — below the 11 to 14 years in prison called for under federal sentencing guidelines — in exchange for her cooperation.
Earlier in court, Byrd-Bennett stood at a lectern with her hands folded in front of her as she answered a series of questions from U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang about her background and her desire to plead guilty just days after being charged.
After listening to a federal prosecutor detail Byrd-Bennett’s involvement in the lucrative kickback scheme, the judge asked her how she intended to plead.
“I plead guilty, your honor,” Byrd-Bennett said in a soft, calm voice.
After the 45-minute hearing ended, she hugged and kissed several relatives in the courtroom gallery and went to be fingerprinted and processed by the U.S. Marshals Office. She will remain free on her own recognizance.
Byrd-Bennett’s swift admission of criminal wrongdoing comes three years nearly to the day since Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to run the city’s cash-strapped public schools system, telling reporters in a news conference Oct. 12, 2012, that Byrd-Bennett was “the best and the brightest.”
A federal indictment unsealed Thursday accused Byrd-Bennett in a massive scheme with the co-owners of SUPES Academy, a company she worked for before joining CPS. The federal probe was revealed in April after CPS acknowledged receiving grand jury subpoenas seeking an array of documents on the SUPES contract. Soon after, Byrd-Bennett took a paid leave of absence and then resigned in May.
SUPES owners Gary Solomon, a consultant with ties to the Emanuel administration, and partner Thomas Vranas also were charged in the 23-count indictment, as was SUPES and another education consulting company the two ran. Solomon and Vranas are scheduled to be arraigned at 2 p.m. Wednesday, records show.
The heart of the indictment involved more than $23 million in no-bid contracts awarded to SUPES to train CPS principals and other administrators beginning in 2012. A CPS committee set up to evaluate no-bid contracts initially balked at awarding SUPES a noncompetitive deal but less than a month later approved the plan, records show.
According to the charges, Solomon agreed to kick back 10 percent of the total value of any contracts awarded to SUPES while Byrd-Bennett held the No. 2 post with CPS. She was later elevated by Emanuel to CEO.
Much of the indictment centers on emails sent between Solomon and Byrd-Bennett that seem to make no effort to conceal the alleged kickback scheme. In one message, Byrd-Bennett even implied she needed cash because she had “tuition to pay and casinos to visit,” according to the charges.
In a December 2012 message, Solomon assured Byrd-Bennett that trust accounts had been set up in the names of two of her young relatives — identified by sources as twin grandsons — and that they would be funded with a combined $254,000 as a “signing bonus” for her help in obtaining the contracts.
The cash would be hers once she stepped down from her public post and rejoined his firm, Solomon wrote in the email.
“It is our assumption that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES,” Solomon wrote, according to prosecutors. “If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.”
She was also given meals as well as tickets to sporting events and expected to be reimbursed for a holiday party she hosted for CPS personnel, according to the charges.
To cover up the scheme, the two co-owners created a letter addressed to Byrd-Bennett that falsely claimed to terminate her consulting agreement with SUPES effective April 30, 2012, according to the charges. In pushing for the contracts for SUPES, Byrd-Bennett lied to other CPS administrators, telling them she had no financial connection with the company, the indictment alleged.
While Byrd-Bennett became the public face of the scandal, the Tribune has reported previously that Solomon’s ties to the Emanuel administration go back to the beginning of Emanuel’s tenure in office, predating the arrival of Byrd-Bennett. In fact, Solomon helped recruit Emanuel’s first schools CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, at the request of the mayor-elect’s transition team in February 2011.
Solomon went on to recommend Byrd-Bennett, who was the lead trainer at SUPES when CPS hired her as chief education officer in April 2012.
Emanuel and his aides have maintained that the mayor’s office had nothing to do with the SUPES contract. When asked in April if his administration had any role at all in the SUPES contract, Emanuel told reporters, “No, you obviously know that by all the information available. And so the answer to that is no.”
On Monday, Emanuel acknowledged for the first time that his office had prior knowledge of the deal, saying his staff “asked some very hard questions” about the no-bid contract before the Chicago school board approved it.
The comments came on the same day the Tribune reported the mayor’s office was more involved in the $20.5 million contract than previously disclosed and was fighting the release of public records that could shed more light on how the deal came to be.
As part of that fight, the Tribune in June sued the city under the state Freedom of Information Act after the mayor’s office redacted or withheld about two dozen emails emanating from Emanuel’s office.
While much of the picture remains missing, the email logs and documents the administration did release show frequent communication among key Emanuel aides, Chicago school leaders and the heads of the SUPES Academy consulting firm in the months, weeks and days leading up to Emanuel’s hand-picked school board awarding the contract.