Corruption in Chicago Public Schools: Former chief admits to fraud

Barbara Byrd-Bennett is pleaded guilty to steering $23 million of Chicago Public Schools ‘no-bid’ contracts to education-training companies in exchange for kickbacks.

M. Spencer Green/AP/File
Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at a news conference, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, background, listens in Chicago, Oct. 12, 2012. The former CEO has been indicted on corruption charges following a federal investigation into a $20 million no-bid contract.

[Update: This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. Eastern time to reflect the terms of the plea deal.]

The former head of Chicago Public Schools Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty on Tuesday to several counts of federal corruption for her alleged role in a scheme to steer more than $23 million in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) contracts in exchange for kickbacks and bribes worth about $2.3 million.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who earned $250,000-a-year "takes full responsibility for her conduct," said her attorney, Michael Scudder.

Byrd-Bennett's plea comes as part of a deal struck with prosecutors. According to the deal, prosecutors will seek just 7-1/2 years for her role in the bribery scheme, as opposed to the 11-14 years prescribed by federal sentencing guidelines, The Chicago Tribune reports. US District Judge Edmond Chang scheduled a sentencing hearing for Jan. 27.

Byrd-Bennett was indicted on Oct. 8. and accused of accepting bribes. She had stepped down from her post four months earlier amid an investigation into a contract between CPS and her former employer SUPES Academy.

According to the indictment, Byrd-Bennett accepted bribes from the company's owners Gary Soloman and Thomas Vranas, who arranged to place $127,000 into two accounts set up under her relatives' names. Additional kickbacks included tickets to sporting events.

In emails included in the indictment, Solomon and Vranas appear to discuss payments to Byrd-Bennett. Vranas is quoted in one saying, "Everyone sucks and is greedy." In an email sent to Soloman on Sept. 10, 2012, Byrd-Bennett wrote: "I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit."

"If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day,", one of the executives wrote in an email to Byrd-Bennett about the bonus, according to the Associated Press. 

Byrd-Bennett faces 20 mail and wire fraud counts and faces a maximum 20 years' jail for each count – up to 400 years in total. Chicago's top federal prosecutor, US attorney Zachary Fardon said the indictment accuses her of "abusing her power to line her own pockets and those of her co-defendants," AP reports. 

Prosecutors allege the scheme started in 2012, the same year that she became chief executive officer of the district. Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement saying he was "saddened and disappointed to learn about the criminal activity" that led to the indictment.

"Our students, parents, teachers and principals deserve better," Mayor Emanuel said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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