The former head of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was indicted Thursday for allegedly participating in a bribery scheme that illegally influenced more than $20 million in city spending.
According to the charges against her, ex-CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett steered a no-bid $20.5 million contract to the consulting company SUPES Academy in return for bribes and the promise of a job after she left her post. Prosecutors claim that Byrd-Bennett’s corrupt dealings began in April 2012, when she first arrived in Chicago to work as chief education adviser, and continued for the next three years.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said Byrd-Bennett plans to plead guilty at a news conference Thursday afternoon. She was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Also being charged are two executives with SUPES Academy, as well as the company itself and a subsidiary. The indictments come six months after it went public that a federal grand jury had requested documents related to the SUPES deal, and five months after Byrd-Bennett stepped down as Chicago’s schools CEO due to the scandal.
According to the newly-released indictment, SUPES’s offer of compensation to Byrd-Bennett was quite brazen.
“When this stint at CPS is done and you are ready to … retire, we have your spot waiting for you,” SUPES co-owner Gary Solomon allegedly said in a 2012 email, shortly after Byrd-Bennett started working in Chicago. “Hopefully with even more work and more (opportunity).” The indictment further alleges that Byrd-Bennett was given a cut of SUPES’s contracts with the government, but that this financial stake was hidden from authorities (and in fact deliberately concealed with a fake letter suggesting she had parted ways with SUPES). At other times, Byrd-Bennett had SUPES deposit over $250,000 in the bank accounts of two relatives as a “signing bonus” for her help.
Byrd-Bennett faces 20 total counts of mail and wire fraud. Solomon and fellow SUPES executive Thomas Vranas face the same charges, as well as charges of bribery and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Byrd-Bennett and her alleged co-conspirators face a maximum penalty of 20 years per offense, though a guilty plea could lead to a substantially lower penalty.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the SUPES contract raised eyebrows even before it was suspected of being illegal. SUPES was hired to train the city’s principals, even though it had no experience in such training and its subsequent performance was criticized.
The recent investigation has also brought attention to Solomon’s dubious past. In 2001, he was pushed out of a job as a school administrator after officials accused him of sending predatory messages to students, covering up students’ drug use, and even kissing a female student. Despite this, he later founded SUPES and played a critical role in having Byrd-Bennett appointed as the new CPS chief.
While Illinois is a state known for its widespread corruption, Byrd-Bennett is actually the first Chicago schools CEO to face criminal charges stemming from her work.
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