Former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett was indicted on Thursday for accepting bribes and kickbacks from her previous employers in exchange for lucrative government contracts worth over $23 million. According to federal prosecutors, Byrd-Bennett has been cooperating with investigators and plans to plead guilty to the charges against her.
From the summer of 2011 to April 30, 2012, Byrd-Bennett worked as a paid consultant to the SUPES Academy and its subsidiary, Synesi Associates. The SUPES Academy offered professional development training for school administrators, while Synesi Associates offered education consulting and school diagnostic review programs. In May 2012, she became a consultant for CPS until October 12, 2012, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked her to serve as the chief executive officer of the nation’s third largest city’s public school system.
Although Byrd-Bennett initially told officials that she was not receiving financial compensation from the companies, she was actually collecting a 10% commission for every contract acquired along with meals, an airplane ticket, and tickets to basketball and baseball games. In an attempt to conceal the kickbacks from federal investigators, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, co-owners of SUPES Academy, allegedly made payments to two of Byrd-Bennett’s relatives for her help in obtaining the contracts.
On April 29, 2012, Solomon sent Byrd-Bennett an email stating, “When this stint at CPS is done and you are ready to re re re retire, we have your spot waiting for you. Hopefully with even more work and more (opportunity).”
In an email from December 6, 2012, Solomon wrote to 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.”
After exchanging multiple incriminating emails discussing their bribery scheme, Solomon allegedly advised Byrd-Bennett to delete her emails. Before they got caught, Solomon and Vranas planned to use a computer program to delete their emails.
Using her position as CEO, Byrd-Bennett provided information to Solomon and Vranas to give them an advantage over their competitors while actively lobbying on their behalf. Within two weeks of Byrd-Bennett’s appointment as CEO, SUPES was awarded a contract worth $2.09 million, and then extended with an additional $225,000 allocation in 2013. On June 26, 2013, SUPES was awarded a larger no-bid contract worth $20.5 million.
On May 29, Byrd-Bennett resigned from her post weeks after learning that federal authorities were investigating both the school chief and her previous employers. On Thursday, Byrd-Bennett and Solomon were charged with 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud. Solomon was also charged with two counts of bribing a government official and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Vranas was charged with 15 counts of mail fraud, four counts of wire fraud, two counts of bribing a government official, and one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Both SUPES and Synesi have been charged as corporate defendants with 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud apiece.
“Graft and corruption in our city’s public school system tears at the fabric of a vital resource for the children of Chicago,” stated U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon. “School officials and city vendors who abuse the public trust will be held accountable.”
Each count of mail and wire fraud is punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Each count of bribery of a government official carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. The charge of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. is punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
While corrupt politicians continue to line their pockets with taxpayer money, Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union remain deadlocked over contract negotiations. With the school system weighed down by a massive budget deficit and unmet pension obligations, the mayor wants teachers to accept a 7% pay cut. Instead of punishing teachers for the actions of corrupt officials, perhaps Chicago’s failing politicians could shoulder the burden and take a pay cut.