CHICAGO — Thirty months after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is set to be sentenced Friday afternoon on federal corruption charges.
Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, admitting she steered a $23 million worth of contracts for principal training to her former firm in return for kickbacks of cash, meals, tickets to sporting events and a job after she left CPS.
Lawyers for Byrd-Bennett — who earned $313,000 in salary and benefits as CPS chief — have asked federal officials to sentence her to no more than 3½ years in prison. Bennett's lawyers said she would use her shortened prison sentenced to launch an effort to convince superintendents and school districts on the need to "redouble their efforts to avoid conflicts of interest with consultants and providers.”
But representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois asked Judge Edmond Chang to sentence Byrd-Bennett to more than seven years in prison, saying she participated in "sophisticated and .. nearly undetectable" corruption.
Although she initially lied to investigators and deleted incriminating emails after the investigation had started, Byrd-Bennett later pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, co-owners of the SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates.
Byrd-Bennett never saw a dime from the scheme, agreeing to be paid 10 percent of the contracts' value in "bribes and kickbacks" as a so-called "signing bonus" on the day she returned to work for Solomon and Vranas.
"I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit. (:," Byrd-Bennett wrote in an email when talking about the plans, according to the indictment, which indicated she planned to pay tuition for her twin grandsons.
Had she not pled guilty and agreed to testify against Solomon and Vranas, Byrd-Bennett could have been sentenced 20 years in prison.
Both Solomon and Vranas eventually pleaded guilty.
In March, Chang sentenced Solomon — whom prosecutors called the mastermind of the scheme — to seven years in prison.
Vranas is expected to be sentenced Friday morning by Chang. Prosecutors have asked that he be sentenced to more than three years in prison, while Vranas' attorneys have asked that he be sentenced to probation.
Byrd-Bennett has been ordered to pay $254,000 in restitution to CPS — and has been sued by the school district for $65 million.
Also Friday, a Cook County judge is expected to decide whether Illinois' school funding formula violates the civil rights of Chicago students by providing more money to schools outside the city.
When Byrd-Bennett pled guilty, she made a tearful confession to parents and students at the Dirksen Courthouse.
"I am terribly sorry and I apologize to them," Byrd-Bennett said. "They deserved much more, much more than I gave to them."