Former Chicago Public Schools chief to plead guilty to bribery scheme – Chicago Tribune

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett plans to plead guilty to charges she steered no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to an education consulting firm where she once worked in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks, other perks and a promise of a job, federal prosecutors revealed Thursday.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon made the disclosure at an afternoon news conference at which he said Byrd-Bennett has been cooperating with investigators.

The 23-count indictment alleges that almost immediately after Mayor Rahm Emanuel installed her as public schools chief in 2012, Byrd-Bennett began scheming with Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, co-owners of SUPES Academy, to secure the contracts to train principals and school administrators.

In return, Byrd-Bennett was paid a “signing bonus” of more than $250,000 and promised a job at SUPES once she stepped down as the public schools CEO, the indictment charges. She also was given meals and tickets to sporting events and expected to be reimbursed for a holiday party she hosted for CPS personnel, according to the charges.

The indictment also alleges that Solomon offered to arrange employment for friends of Byrd-Bennett’s.

Solomon and Vranas also were criminally charged, as was their business itself and a subsidiary, Synesi Associates.

The long-awaited indictment comes six months after CPS revealed in mid-April that it had been served federal grand jury subpoenas seeking an array of documents related to the SUPES contract. Soon after Byrd-Bennett took a paid leave of absence, and she resigned in May.

Each of the five defendants was charged with 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud, except for Vranas, who was indicted on one fewer wire fraud count. Solomon, 47, of Wilmette, and Vranas, 34, of Glenview, were also charged with two counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

“Graft and corruption in our city’s public school system tears at the fabric of a vital resource for the children of Chicago,” U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said in a statement. “School officials and city vendors who abuse the public trust will be held accountable.”

Byrd-Bennett’s attorney, Michael Scudder, could not immediately be reached for comment, but Solomon’s attorneys issued a statement saying he has “extensively cooperated” with the investigation.

“While acknowledging certain errors in judgment that he (as well as others) made in the contract letting process, and while he regrets his own errors, Mr. Solomon is disappointed in the government’s charges,” the statement read.

According to the charges, Solomon wrote an email to Byrd-Bennett in April 2012 that promised her a lucrative job with SUPES once she stepped down as Emanuel’s public schools chief.

“When this stint at CPS is done and you are ready to … retire, we have your spot waiting for you,” Solomon wrote, according to the indictment. “Hopefully with even more work and more (opportunity).”

The indictment also alleges that Solomon and Vranas deposited a combined $254,000 in the financial accounts of two undisclosed relatives of Byrd-Bennett’s for her help on obtaining the contracts. The money was to be disguised as a “signing bonus,” authorities allege.

“They need a college fund,” the charges quoted Solomon as writing in one email.

In an email to Solomon in December 2012, Byrd-Bennett asked that the amount of money deposited in each account be equal.

“I would like the flexibility to use funds for whatever reason as needed for them,” the indictment quoted her as writing.

Solomon and Vranas then deposited $127,000 in each account, which was 10 percent of the gross proceeds of the original contract, the indictment alleges.

To cover up the scheme, they 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.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who had a cordial relationship with Byrd-Bennett, said in a statement that she wished the former chief “well in her legal battles.”

“The circumstances surrounding the indictment of the former CEO are unfortunate and mark a sad day for the leadership of our district,” Lewis said.

In May the Tribune reported that Solomon’s ties to the Emanuel administration’s education initiatives go back to the beginning of his first term in 2011, predating Byrd-Bennett’s arrival. Solomon confirmed at that time that he 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 firm’s lead trainer when CPS hired her as chief education officer; Emanuel appointed her to succeed Brizard.

In June the Tribune reported on emails obtained from City Hall that showed how the consulting firm played up its clout with the Emanuel administration and CPS as it was pitching the principal training program.

“Working with both the Mayor’s Office and the (CPS) Department of Talent and Human Resources, we have been heavily involved in recruiting the current Chief Executive Officer, both the former and current Chief Education Officer, and the current Chief of Staff,” SUPES officials declared in their pitch.

“We have been heavily involved in either assisting in shaping the current CPS blueprint, or the implementation of the plan, and making sure Chief Area Officers, and more importantly building principals, were aligned with the greater vision for the Chicago Public Schools,” SUPES officials said in a section of the document titled “Unique Relationship to the Chicago Public Schools.”

The 13-page document, prepared on SUPES letterhead, was titled “Sole Source Rationale,” using a technical term for no-bid contracts. The paper was emailed to Emanuel’s top education adviser, then deputy chief of staff Beth Swanson, in September 2012.

About a month later the mayor’s hand-picked school board approved unanimously and with no public discussion the initial phase of what later grew to a $20.5 million contract with SUPES to train principals and other school officials.

Swanson, who has been questioned by federal agents in the contract probe, disputed the SUPES claims of assembling much of the public schools leadership, her attorney said.

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