Byrd-Bennett gets 54 months in CPS kickback scandal
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s talk of redemption fell on deaf ears early Friday when a U.S. District Court judge sentenced her to 54 months behind bars for her part in a scheme that steered $23 million in no-bid CPS contracts to a former employer.
The 67-year-old Byrd-Bennett admitted she stood to net at least $2.3 million in kickbacks for arranging the deals with SUPES Academy.
“I pray to God to help me find a way to redeem myself,” she told Judge Edmond Chang. “We’re here because of my dishonesty in my relationship with SUPES.”
Chang ordered Byrd-Bennett, who earned $313,000 annually as CEO, to report for prison on August 28 and indicated he plans to recommend that she serve out her sentence at the minimum-security Alderson Federal Prison Camp for female inmates in West Virginia.
Byrd-Bennett was also ordered to pay $15,000 in fines and make restitution of $254,000 to CPS. She has also been sued by the school district for $65 million.
Federal prosecutors had asked for a sentence of up to seven-and-a-half years, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church highlighting Byrd-Bennett’s “naked greed” in nearly bankrupting the long-troubled CPS system, reported to be in as much as $2.8 billion in debt at the time of the no-bid deals.
At one point, prosecutors shared email Byrd-Bennett exchanged with her co-conspirators in which she joked, “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
Faisal Khan, CEO of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Project Six, told the Chicago City Wire that he wonders if the sentence sends a strong enough message.
“Byrd-Bennett and the others involved in this bribery scheme are being held responsible for their actions and crimes,” he said. “But the damages to CPS and the resources that were denied students were allowed to happen by Chicago’s easily manipulated contract system. Chicago’s bidding-for-contracts process is archaic and fertile ground for corruption.”
Sobbing through much of the proceedings, Byrd-Bennett told the court that she found the pressures of the job “overwhelming,” leading her to lean on SUPES owner Gary Solomon in making critical decisions, such as her 2013 move to shutter nearly 50 public schools.
“Chicagoans were lucky that Byrd-Bennett and Gary Solomon, the head of SUPES Academy, were caught for their crimes,” Khan said. “But the city might not be as lucky the next time, or the time after that. Chicagoans deserve justice and a guarantee that the mayor and City Council will enact real substantive reforms that will prevent these crimes from happening again. The time for lip service is over.”
Byrd-Bennett was hired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who in a statement on Friday said she “betrayed the public trust.”
In March, Solomon was sentenced to seven years as the person behind the scheme. On Friday, SUPES co-owner Thomas Vranas was sentenced to 18 months.
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