As part of a plea agreement with federal authorities, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett pleaded guilty this morning to one felony count of fraud in connection with the SUPES Academy corruption scandal.
The former head of the nation’s third-largest school district is now a convicted felon.
After the hearing — and getting fingerprinted and photographed by the U.S. Marshal’s Office — Byrd-Bennett gave a brief statement to a large crowd of reporters that waited for her in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. She directed her message to CPS students, their families and teachers.
“I am terribly sorry, and I apologize to them,” she said quickly. “They deserved much more. Much more than I gave to them.”
Later, in another statement, Byrd-Bennett said her “failings could not have come at a time of greater challenges for CPS.”
Authorities say Byrd-Bennett steered a $20 million no-bid contract for principal development to SUPES Academy in exchange for the promise of future kickbacks.
The School Board signed the contract barely a month after it voted to shutter 50 schools, mostly in black neighborhoods. The 2013 closings were the largest in U.S. history.
As Byrd-Bennett walked out of court, a handful of retired CPS teachers shouted at her, calling her “a disgrace to African Americans.”
The plea agreement suggests that Byrd-Bennett is cooperating with federal authorities on a larger case that could impact other school districts. Some of the payments Byrd-Bennett was supposed to receive from the SUPES Academy were tied to “her official actions at CPS leading to the award of [a CPS contract in 2012] as well as contracts awarded by other school districts to the SUPES Entities.”
Although she won’t be sentenced until after the cases of her co-defendants, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, play out, Byrd-Bennett faces a maximum of 20 years in prison. Federal prosecutors say they will ask for only a fraction of that — about 7.5 years. She also faces a fine of up to $250,000.
Their arraignments for Solomon and Vranas are scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Their companies, SUPES and Synesi Associates LLC., are also named as defendants in the indictment.
One felony conviction
Byrd-Bennett’s plea agreement admits guilt on one count of wire fraud. She says that in June 2012, when she was still chief education officer — she emailed Solomon about a $2 million contract to conduct professional development for a program called the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy, for which she’d previously worked as a consultant. In the email, she told Solomon that she would “work hard to get us this and expanded work.”
Byrd-Bennett became the chief executive officer of CPS a few months later, in October 2012.
The money from the initial contract was to be deposited into the bank accounts of two relatives — presumably, her twin grandsons in the Cleveland area — after she left CPS. They were to be disguised as a “signing bonus” for returning to the company as a consultant.
In the indictment, federal prosecutors had also accused Byrd Bennett of steering the much larger, $20 million contract to SUPES for professional development for principals in 2013. Catalyst first investigated the questionable circumstances surrounding that no-bid contract in 2013. The district inspector general opened an investigation as a result of Catalyst’s initial report, and eventually passed the case onto federal authorities.
The plea agreement indicates that superintendents elsewhere may have received similar kickbacks for steering contracts in SUPES’ direction.
Byrd-Bennett “expected to receive … a signing bonus consistent with those received by other superintendents when they became consultants, and thus worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to the agreement.
Early on, Catalyst wrote about how other school districts had contracts with SUPES at the same time that their superintendents worked for the company as consultants. In 2014, for example, an ethics panel in Baltimore County found schools superintendent Dallas Dance to have violated his district’s rules by working as a coach for the company while the district did business with it.
Last week prosecutors said the investigation is ongoing and declined to say whether other superintendents are being questioned about their involvement with SUPES.
U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang said in court that prosecutors would dismiss the remaining 19 other counts against Byrd-Bennett — 15 counts of mail fraud and four counts of wire fraud — and would recommend a reduced sentence in exchange for her “full and truthful cooperation.”
As part of the plea agreement, Byrd-Bennett says she won’t appeal her case. She has to turn in her passport and promise not to travel outside the continental United States before she is sentenced. Her next status hearing is scheduled for Jan. 27.
Fallout from SUPES
Politically, the corruption case has been damaging to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has given varied statements about his knowledge of the $20 million no-bid contract in recent months. Federal authorities began subpoenaing documents related to the contract just a week after Emanuel was re-elected in a runoff race.
“I’m just outraged. What did Mayor Emanuel know about this contract and when did he know it?” asked Audrey Davis, a retired English teacher from Lakeview High School who showed up for Tuesday’s court hearing.
The Tribune reported this week that emails and other documents show top City Hall aides, CPS officials and the heads of SUPES were in “frequent communication” leading up to the Board vote on SUPES.
After receiving questions from the mayor’s office, a CPS spokesman wrote to a CPS official asking about the “benefits and value” of SUPES, and whether principals and others could “speak favorably” about SUPES, emails show.
“There is some concern that we’re spending a large sum on some principals while laying off others, and teachers,” the CPS spokesman wrote.
(Principals would later complain bitterly about the training, saying it was too basic and led by out-of-towners with little understanding of the challenges they faced in Chicago.)
This week, Emanuel told reporters his staffers were “acting appropriately as a stop gap” and that they “did the right thing by asking hard questions and directing those questions to the people that were trying to pursue that contract.”
Despite the questioning, however, school board members — who are chosen by the mayor — voted unanimously in favor of the contract. Prior to Byrd-Bennett’s court hearing on Tuesday, a group of parent activists held a press conference outside calling for an elected school board.
On Monday, questions surfaced about work given to another former Byrd-Bennett employer.
WTTW reported that a company run by the former emergency financial manager for Detroit Public Schools, where Byrd-Bennett worked as a chief academic auditor before coming to CPS, was one of the subcontractors that helped remove student records from schools that were shuttered in 2013.
The overall contract, worth nearly $31 million, was given to Global Workplace Solutions through a public bid. CPS’ inspector general opened an internal investigation into the matter, WTTW reports, though it’s unclear if the investigation is ongoing.