DOWNTOWN — Disgraced former Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal corruption charges.
Byrd-Bennett, 66, pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud as part of a 22-page plea deal with prosecutors in which she agreed to testify against others in what one prosecutor called a "scheme" involving "bribes and kickbacks."
After entering her plea before Judge Edmond Chang at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, Byrd-Bennett made a brief statement directed to CPS students, parents and educators, saying, "I am terribly sorry and I apologize to them. They deserved much more, much more than I gave to them."
"There is nobody to blame but me, and my failings could not have come at a time of greater challenges for CPS," she added in a written statement. "The issues CPS faces are significant, and the city needs — and the children deserve — leaders who are working without conflicts of interest."
She admitted to being "engaged in a scheme to deprive her former employer," CPS, of "honest services," her attorney Michael Scudder said in court Tuesday.
According to the plea agreement she signed, Byrd-Bennett could face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. She was released Tuesday after making a $4,500 bond payment and surrendering her passport.
Yet Byrd-Bennett is likely to be sentenced to much less in exchange for testifying against co-defendants Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, executives with SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates allegedly involved in the scam. Her sentencing will be delayed until after those cases are closed.
Judge Chang called the guilty plea "the ultimate form of self-incrimination."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church charged Byrd-Bennett received "bribes and kickbacks" of 10 percent on business she steered to SUPES and Synesi, including a $20.5 million no-bid contract for principal training Byrd-Bennett encouraged the Board of Education to endorse, which it did so unanimously.
According to Church, the money was to be held until Byrd-Bennett left CPS, at which point it would be given as a "signing bonus" on her return to SUPES and Synesi. She estimated the payments would be "worth hundreds of thousands of dollars."
In a statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel charged that "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." He called it now "a matter for the courts," adding that CPS 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."
That wasn't good enough for other politicians, some of whom rallied across the street from the courthouse to call for an elected school board.
"Byrd-Bennett’s guilty plea underscores the urgent need for an elected school board accountable to Chicagoans, not well-connected corporations," Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said in a statement. "Two decades of mayoral control has led us to this point. CPS is afflicted by a man-made disaster, and only the openness and public accountability of an elected school board will get us out of this rut."
State Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr. (D-Chicago) said Byrd-Bennett's downfall would add momentum to a bill he's sponsoring in the General Assembly to give Chicago an elected school board. According to Andrade, this case has aroused more outrage than more "routine" corruption cases.
"I've been knocking on doors," he said, "and people are aware of what happened to 'Triple B.'"
Pamela Johnson, a South Loop resident, came Downtown for the demonstration and then joined with others in heckling Byrd-Bennett as she left the building, calling her "a shame on African-Americans." She called the Byrd-Bennett case "a total outrage," adding, "I'm just a regular citizen down here trying to hope we can finally have an elected school board."
Byrd-Bennett was indicted last week on charges she received money and benefits from SUPES Academy and Synesi in exchange for guiding no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to them.
"I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit. (:," Byrd-Bennett wrote in an email when talking about the plans, according to the indictment.
Byrd-Bennett went on leave in April and soon after resigned amid the federal probe.
It was agreed that Byrd-Bennett, Emanuel's hand-picked schools chief executive officer until she stepped down amid the federal investigation, would be paid 10 percent of the revenue of any contract awarded to the companies if she provided "sales services," according to the indictment.
Byrd-Bennett — who was paid $313,000 in salary and benefits by CPS — was provided with meals, an airplane ticket and seats at basketball and baseball games, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office. She also expected to be reimbursed by the companies for playing host to a holiday party for CPS staff, according to the office.
She introduced employees of the companies to CPS officials, leaked the business owners information to give them an advantage over competitors and made it seem to CPS that she was no longer working with the companies, according to the indictment.
Listen to some remarks at the news conference announcing charges against Byrd-Bennett:
Byrd-Bennett and people she worked with discussed the plans in emails, according to the indictment. U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon did not say how investigators obtained those emails.
In the second count of fraud she pleaded guilty to, it charged that she wrote her co-defendants: "I will work hard to get us this and expanded work."
Plans to "defraud and to obtain money and property from CPS" had started by April 2012, a month before Byrd-Bennett joined CPS, according to the indictment. The companies Byrd-Bennett worked with planned to conceal the kickbacks by funneling $127,000 each into two accounts under the names of Byrd-Bennett's relatives, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
It was agreed that Byrd-Bennett would be paid the money promised to her as a "signing bonus" once she stopped working at CPS and was rehired at the companies as a consultant, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
“When this stint at CPS is done and you are ready to re re re retire, we have your spot waiting for you,” Solomon, former chief executive officer of the SUPES Academy, wrote in an email to Byrd-Bennett, according to the indictment.
Byrd-Bennett was charged with 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud. With the plea deal, those and three other counts against her were dismissed.
Wilmette-based SUPES Academy and Evanston-based Synesi also were indicted, as were their former owners, Solomon and Vranas. Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant for the companies before starting at CPS in May 2012.
Vranas is 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 United States. Solomon faces the same charges, as well as an additional charge of wire fraud.
The indictment wants Solomon, Vranas, SUPES and Synesi to forfeit an estimated $2 million in money and property related to the alleged violations.
Read the indictment:
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