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Ex-CPS Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett Pleads Guilty To Kickback Scheme

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme to steer more than $23 million in no-bid contracts to a former employer for $2.3 million in bribes and kickbacks.

At her first court appearance on 20 counts of mail fraud and wire fraud, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud, and prosecutors agreed to drop all the other counts.

In a strong, clear voice, Byrd-Bennett told U.S. District Judge Edmund Chang the charges prosecutors have outlined against her are true. She had agreed to accept millions of dollars bribes and kickbacks from SUPES Academy and its owners, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, in exchange for SUPES getting more than $23 million in contracts to train principals at the Chicago Public Schools.

Byrd-Bennett, 66, worked as a consultant for SUPES Academy before she was hired at the Chicago Public Schools in April 2012. She is the first Chicago Public Schools chief executive to face criminal charges in connection with the job.

After pleading guilty, Byrd-Bennett briefly met with reporters, saying she had a message for the children of CPS, their parents, and their teachers.

"I am terribly sorry, and I apologize to them. They deserved much more; much more than I gave to them," she said.


In a more complete written statement released by her spokeswoman, Bennett said, "There is nobody to blame but me, and my failings could not have come at a time of greater challenges for CPS. The issues CPS faces are significant, and the City needs—and the children deserve—leaders who are working without conflicts of interest. I have devoted my entire professional life to public education and, while there is no excusing or downplaying my misconduct, I believe I have done a lot of good, including in Chicago. Today, though, all I can say is that I am truly sorry and that it is time for the District and City to move forward."

Federal prosecutors have alleged Byrd-Bennett schemed with Solomon and Vranas "to secretly profit from schools." SUPES also was named as a defendant, as was Solomon's and Vranas' Wilmette-based education consulting firm Synesi Associates.

Byrd-Bennett also agreed to postpone her sentencing until after her co-defendants go to trial, or cut deals of their own. She has agreed to cooperate in the cases against her co-defendants, and testify if necessary.

A mail fraud conviction carries a maximum 20 year sentence, but prosecutors have agreed to recommend a reduced sentence of about 7 1/2 years in prison, if Bennett provides "full and truthful cooperation." Bennett's attorneys are free to recommend a lower sentence.

In 2013, SUPES received a $20.5 million no-bid contract from the Chicago Board of Education to provide principal training for the Chicago Public Schools. SUPES also received more than $2 million in earlier contracts for a pilot program while Byrd-Bennett was the district's chief education officer. In return for steering the contracts to SUPES, Byrd-Bennett allegedly was guaranteed a percentage of the money from the deal once she left CPS and returned to work at SUPES.

Solomon and Vranas allegedly offered Byrd-Bennett money, tickets to sporting events, and other kickbacks in exchange for the contracts with CPS. Both face multiple charges, including bribery and conspiracy to defraud.

According to the indictment, Byrd-Bennett sent Solomon an email about their plans, saying, "I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit."

Solomon's attorney said last week his client has cooperated with the investigation, and stands behind his companies, but acknowledged "certain errors" in judgment. Vranas and his attorney have yet to comment on the case. Solomon and Vranas were scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday afternoon.

Federal agents served subpoenas to CPS in April in connection to the SUPES Academy contract, and raided the firm's offices in Wilmette. A short time later, Byrd-Bennett took a leave of absence, CPS suspended its contract with SUPES, and Byrd-Bennett ultimately resigned.


The current head of Chicago Public Schools Forrest Claypool is promising major reform.

"Our job is to restore the credibility of cps in the minds of the public," he said.

Claypool says the school board is now listening to recommendations of a major accounting firm regarding no bid contracts. He's promising tighter, more effective auditing.

"At the end of the day, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, as the U.S. attorney made very clear, deliberately deceived and misled the board. And now we know why, she was lining her own pockets at the expense of our kids and at the expense of taxpayers."

Byrd-Bennett was due back in court on Jan. 27. As she was entering her guilty plea Tuesday morning, a group of community leaders was rallying outside the federal courthouse, demanding an elected Chicago school board, saying it would provide greater checks and balances needed to avoid corruption.

Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, said the mayor's elected school board is part of a culture of corruption.

"They've allowed this to happen. It happened right under their noses, and they looked the other way. So they're equally as culpable as she is, and things need to change," she said.

Some lawmakers in Springfield have introduced legislation that would call for an elected school board in Chicago, but it has been bottled up in committee.


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