By Jon Seidel and Lauren FitzPatrick
Two years have passed since the FBI confronted the woman hand-picked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to teach the children of Chicago.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett sat down with federal agents that day in April 2015. And then, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools “lied about just about everything,” prosecutors say.
She had a lot to hide.
In an extraordinary chapter in Chicago’s long history of graft, the feds ultimately learned a greedy businessman had engineered Byrd-Bennett’s installation at the top of CPS, the third-largest school district in the nation. Educational consultant Gary Solomon hoped Byrd-Bennett would steer millions to his companies. In return, he promised to pay her hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
Not only did Byrd-Bennett oblige, but in their substantial correspondence she authored a nine-word, emoji-punctuated email that secured her place in Chicago’s corruption hall of fame: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:”.
Now, 18 months after a grand jury hit Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and businessman Thomas Vranas with a 23-count indictment, Byrd-Bennett, 67, is finally expected to learn her fate Friday. She is due for sentencing at 1 p.m. in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang.
Before Chang hands down his sentence, Byrd-Bennett’s lawyers have promised she will explain why “a highly educated professional of incredible accomplishment” would “engage in such blatantly wrong and deplorable conduct.”
“Nobody has struggled more with this question than Barbara herself, and at her upcoming sentencing, she will address the issue candidly with the court in her own words,” Michael Scudder, Byrd-Bennett’s attorney, wrote in a memo to the judge earlier this month.
Prosecutors will ask the judge to send Byrd-Bennett to prison for 89 months. Byrd-Bennett, who never actually pocketed the promised kickbacks, will ask for only three and a half years. She also wants a chance to perform “very substantial community service, including helping public school systems and their officials adhere to complete integrity and transparency.”
Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to wire fraud in October 2015. Vranas, 36, pleaded guilty to a bribe conspiracy in April 2016 and is also set to be sentenced Friday morning. Last month, Chang sentenced Solomon, a 49-year-old former dean at Niles West High School, to seven years in prison for wire fraud. Solomon has indicated he plans to appeal. All three still face a lawsuit filed by CPS that seeks to claw back any of the millions spent in the fraud.
Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant for Solomon and Vranas at The SUPES Academy LLC and Synesi Associates LLC after running school systems in Cleveland and Detroit. She was then sent to CPS in 2011 to coach a short-lived Emanuel appointee, but she was quickly tapped to be Chicago’s “interim” chief education officer in April 2012.
That same month, she secretly signed a “consulting agreement” with Solomon and Vranas, agreeing she would receive a percentage of the gross revenues from any contract she could steer their way. Solomon promised to stash the money away for her in accounts for her twin grandsons and turn it over to her as a “signing bonus” when she later returned to his payroll.
Solomon was also working behind the scenes. He told the mayor’s deputy for education in a July 2012 email that CPS’ CEO at the time, Jean-Claude Brizard, wanted out of his job — and Byrd-Bennett was “all in.”
By July 24, 2012, Solomon was applauding Byrd-Bennett in an email that read, “Congrats Madam CEO!!!” The rest of the city wouldn’t learn of Byrd-Bennett’s promotion for three more months.
Once in charge of CPS, Byrd-Bennett steered some $23 million in no-bid contracts to Solomon’s companies in late 2012 and 2013. The guilty pleas stemmed from the first one, a $2 million contract for principal training that the school board approved the same day as her $250,000-a-year contract to be CEO.
“She sold her integrity and sold out the students of the Chicago Public Schools, and then she worked to enrich herself and her co-schemers at the expense of CPS, its students, its teachers, its administrators, and the City of Chicago,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church wrote.
But before the scheme was revealed, Emanuel fondly referred to Byrd-Bennett as “B3.” She led CPS through much of his first term, guiding the schools system through a 2012 teachers’ strike and the high-profile controversial shuttering of a record 50 schools in 2013. Her lawyers referred to both as “accomplishments” in their recent memo to the judge.
Her tenure ended when FBI subpoenas landed at the district in April 2015 — days after voters gave Emanuel a second term as mayor. Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas wouldn’t be indicted until October of that year. Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty days after she was charged.
Prosecutors said at the time they would recommend a sentence of roughly seven years in exchange for Byrd-Bennett’s cooperation with their investigation. Acknowledging that Byrd-Bennett first lied to the FBI when confronted by agents, Church has said Byrd-Bennett ultimately “cooperated first, and she cooperated fully.”
After admitting her role in the scheme to the judge, Byrd-Bennett also gave a tearful apology to the schoolchildren of Chicago, and their families.
“They deserved much more,” she said, “much more than I gave to them.”