CHICAGO— The former chief executive of the cash-strapped Chicago public school system pleaded guilty on Tuesday in federal court to her part of a scheme to steer $23 million in contracts to her former employer in exchange for bribes and kickbacks that would have netted her more than $2 million.
The guilty plea from Barbara Byrd-Bennett, 66, who also previously led the Cleveland and Detroit school systems, came only five days after federal prosecutors unveiled the grand jury indictment detailing the scheme allegedly concocted by Byrd-Bennett and the leaders of two Chicago-area executive education training firms where she had previously worked as a consultant.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop all but one of the 20 fraud charges if she continues to cooperate with federal investigators. Megan Cunniff Church, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, also told Judge Edmond Chang they would recommend a prison term below sentencing guidelines and seek a 7½ year sentence.
The judge is not expected to sentence Byrd-Bennett until early next year. She will remain free on $4,500 bond until then. Byrd-Bennett is cooperating with investigators, according to federal prosecutors.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Byrd-Bennett paused briefly to talk to reporters and apologize to Chicago’s educators, students and their parents.
“I’m terribly sorry and I apologize to them,” Byrd-Bennett said. “They deserve much more than I gave them.”
As she left the courthouse, a couple of onlookers yelled “shame on you” and “you are a disgrace to African-Americans.” Byrd-Bennett did not appear to respond.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired Byrd-Bennett to lead the nation’s third-largest school district in 2012.
Byrd-Bennett, who during her tenure oversaw the closure of 50 schools as part of cost-savings effort, resigned from the post in May, weeks after taking a leave of absence after it became public that she was at the center of a federal probe.
The school system, much like the city, is under intense financial pressure as it faces a nearly $500 million hole in its budget for the current school year and a teachers’ pension that is underfunded by about $10 billion.
“There is nobody to blame but me, and my failings could not have come at a time of greater challenges for CPS,” Byrd-Bennett said in a written statement issued through the officer of her attorney. “The issues CPS faces are significant, and the city needs —and the children deserve — leaders who are working without conflicts of interest.”
SUPES Academy, which is based in the nearby suburb of Wilmette, and Synesi Associates in Evanston, Ill, were also charged in the indictment, as were the respective owners of the companies, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas. Solomon and Vranas are scheduled to appear in federal court on Wednesday.
The companies allegedly planned to conceal some of the kickback money by funneling it into accounts set up in the names of two of Byrd-Bennett’s relatives, according to the indictment. Solomon and Vranas allegedly presented Byrd-Bennett with two college fund accounts, each containing $127,000, that were set up for two of her relatives, the indictment said.
The ex-CPS chief also had an agreement with the companies that called for her to be paid in the form of a “signing bonus” after she left CPS and the companies re-hired her as a consultant. The indictment also alleges that Solomon offered to arrange for jobs for friends of Byrd-Bennett in exchange for contracts.
Byrd-Bennett also received meals, an airplane ticket and tickets to basketball and baseball games as part of the scheme, the indictment alleges.
Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas allegedly laid out their scheme in emails that were recovered by federal agents, according to the indictment.
“I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (: [.],” Byrd-Bennett wrote in one email allegedly discussing the kickbacks.
In another email in late 2012, Solomon told Byrd-Bennett: “It is our assumption that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES/Synesi. If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.”
Emanuel has disavowed Byrd-Bennett’s “criminal activity” but has resisted suggestions he should be held politically culpable for the scandal.
Internal emails, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, show that Byrd-Bennett bristled when questioned by a top Emanuel aide before the district awarded a $20.5 million no-bid contract to SUPES for principal training
“There’s no doubt, in selecting (Byrd-Bennett), I played a role,” Emanuel said on Monday. “But Barbara and the officials with SUPES, they concocted this and, in fact, my staff did the right thing by asking hard questions and directing those questions to the people trying to pursue that contract.”
The federal probe became public in April, not long after Emanuel won a runoff to serve a second term as mayor of the nation’s third-largest city.
“Today, Barbara Byrd-Bennett took responsibility for putting her own financial gain ahead of what was in the best interest of the children she pledged to serve,” Emanuel’s spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said. in a statement. “This continues to be a matter for the courts. The mayor and Chicago Public Schools’ leadership will continue to focus on our students, teachers and principals so that we can continue the progress that is being made in classrooms across the city, and enact further safeguards to help prevent this type of abuse from happening again.”
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