By Jason Meisner and Juan Perez Jr.
As she took over as chief of the Chicago Public Schools three years ago, Barbara Byrd-Bennett was touted as an experienced administrator who was going to help the Emanuel administration turn around a system beset by a recent teacher's strike, huge budget deficits and pending school closings.
On Tuesday, the mayor's handpicked choice to lead the nation's third-largest school system became instead the latest in a long line of Chicago public officials caught trying to line their own pockets.
The 66-year-old onetime New York City elementary school teacher faces up to about 7 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to a single felony count of wire fraud for steering multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts to a former employer in exchange for the promise of up to $2.3 million in kickbacks.
Byrd-Bennett stopped briefly to talk to a horde of reporters and cameramen. 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," said Byrd-Bennett, who had traces of controversy crop up in previously leading the Cleveland and Detroit school districts.
She then stepped through the crowd of spectators and left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse without taking questions.
Prosecutors said Byrd-Bennett is cooperating with the ongoing investigation and has agreed to postpone her sentencing until after the charges against her co-defendants have been resolved. In exchange for her cooperation, prosecutors have agreed to seek a sentence of about 7 1/2 years in prison, well below the 11 to 14 years in prison called for under federal sentencing guidelines, according to her 21-page plea agreement.
Byrd-Bennett had stood to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars once she left CPS, but before that could happen the no-bid contracts had drawn the interest of investigators. In reality, she disgraced her office for very little in return -- tickets to sporting events, meals and a few other perks.
Worse for Byrd-Bennett, the promise of $2.3 million in bribes doubled the sentence she'd typically face for a wire fraud conviction even with her cooperation in the investigation. Other factors adding to the stiff sentence were the "high-level decision-making or sensitive position" she held as well as her attempt to obstruct justice.
Her CPS salary totaled $250,00 a year.
The charges against Byrd-Bennett were unsealed just last Thursday, accusing her in a massive scheme with the co-owners of SUPES Academy, a Wilmette-based education consulting firm 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. Soon after, Byrd-Bennett took a paid leave of absence and then resigned in May.
Also charged were SUPES owners Gary Solomon, a consultant with ties to the Emanuel administration, and partner Thomas Vranas as well as SUPES and another education consulting company the two ran. Solomon, Vranas and their companies are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, records show.
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 in October 2012 that Byrd-Bennett was "the best and the brightest."
On Monday, Emanuel acknowledged for the first time that his office had prior knowledge of the no-bid deal, saying his staffers had "asked some very hard questions" before the school board approved it in a unanimous vote. The mayor's comments came on the same day the Tribune reported his office was fighting the release of public records that could shed more light on how the deal came to be.
In a statement released after the court hearing Tuesday, mayoral spokesman Kelley Quinn said Byrd-Bennett "took responsibility for putting her own financial gain" ahead of the children she pledged to serve.
Earlier in court, Byrd-Bennett stood at a lectern with her hands folded in front of her as she listened to a federal prosecutor detail her involvement in the lucrative kickback scheme. The judge then asked her how she intended to plead to the one count.
"I plead guilty, your honor," Byrd-Bennett said in a soft, calm voice.
With the hearing over, she hugged and kissed several relatives in the courtroom gallery and went to be fingerprinted and processed by the U.S. Marshals Office. She remained free on her own recognizance until her next court appearance in January.
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.
After Byrd-Bennett took a top post with CPS in April 2012, Solomon and Vranas agreed to kick back 10 percent of the total value of any contracts awarded to SUPES beginning, according to her plea agreement. Six months later, she was elevated by Emanuel to CEO.
Throughout 2012 and 2013, Byrd-Bennett repeatedly pushed for new funding for the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy, an Emanuel-backed initiative to train school leaders, according to her plea agreement. Under her direction, SUPES contracts ballooned from just a $300,000 pilot program the year before to a $20.5 million no-bid contract that was approved by the board in June 2013.
In pushing for the contracts for SUPES, Byrd-Bennett admitted she lied to other CPS administrators, telling them she had no financial connection with the company.
According to the plea agreement, Solomon and Vranas gave Byrd-Bennett tickets to sporting events, meals and other perks in exchange for her help, but no cash actually exchanged hands. Instead, Byrd-Bennett was promised hundreds of thousands of dollars as a "signing bonus" once she left her duties at CPS and rejoined SUPES as a consultant, the plea deal said.
The bonus was to be concealed in trust accounts set up in the names of two of Byrd-Bennett's young relatives -- identified by sources as her twin grandsons -- with the cash available to her once she left CPS, according to the plea.
Much of the indictment centers on emails sent between Solomon and Byrd-Bennett that seemed 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.
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.
While Emanuel has previously said his administration played no role in the contract, the Tribune reported Monday that key Emanuel aides, Chicago school leaders and the consultants had multiple conversations in the months, weeks and days leading up to Emanuel's hand-picked school board awarding the contract in June 2013.
In the wake of that story, the mayor on Monday said for the first time that his office was involved in the discussion prior to the board vote. He said his chief of staff and others questioned the deal "concocted" by Byrd-Bennett and the SUPES owners.
Emanuel aides have for months refused to answer detailed questions about the events leading up to the no-bid contract. The administration has not turned over or has redacted dozens of SUPES-related emails from the mayor's office and hundreds more from CPS; the Tribune has sued under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain some of those records.
Although the administration's refusal to provide many records means the full picture remains unclear, Emanuel aides in recent days have pointed to one email string involving Cyrd-Bennett to suggest they resisted her push for the contract.
On Monday, Emanuel appeared to reference the email.
"They concocted this, and in fact my staff did the right thing by asking hard questions and directing those questions to the people that were trying to pursue that contract," Emanuel said. "And in fact, they were acting appropriately as a stop-gap."
The mayor did not say what questions were asked or whether his office sought to intervene before the school board members he appointed voted 6-0 for the deal without any public discussion.
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