Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked former schools CEO, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday, admitting her role in a brazen kickback scheme.
Byrd-Bennett’s arrival at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse was her first public appearance in six months; in April, she had championed strong principals at a downtown event on the same day that federal subpoenas landed at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.
After the hearing, Byrd-Bennett addressed reporters in the lobby of the courthouse.
“My message is for the children, and the families of the children, of Chicago Public Schools, and the incredible, dedicated educators we have,” she said.
“I am terribly sorry, and I apologize to them. They deserved much more, much more than I gave to them.”
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon had said last week that Byrd-Bennett would plead guilty at her “earliest opportunity” — and she did, entering her plea to one count of wire fraud at her arraignment before U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang, as her family and friends filled the second row of the courtroom.
Before she could, however, Chang had to decide she was competent to do so. He asked if she understood her rights, and what she was about to do. Pleading guilty, he warned her, was the “ultimate act of self-incrimination.”
Standing between her attorneys, Byrd-Bennett spoke little except to answer the judge’s questions.
Byrd-Bennett said she understood, and the judge allowed her to enter the plea. Chang said prosecutors have agreed to drop the other 19 counts of her indictment. They also have agreed to recommend a reduced sentence — as long as Byrd-Bennett provides what he called “full and truthful cooperation” with prosecutors.
That reduced sentence would be roughly seven and a half years in prison, according to prosecutors; the wire fraud count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years.
She agreed to postpone her sentencing until her co-defendants are dealt with.
Byrd-Bennett’s family and friends filled an entire row of the courtroom; that included her daughter, the sitting clerk of courts of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and mother of the young twins who were to benefit from the scheme.
It all took less than an hour. At the end, Byrd-Bennett kissed her daughter and was allowed to leave — but not before talking to U.S. marshals.
Afterward, Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for Emanuel, issued a statement:
“Today, 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. This continues to be a matter for the courts. The Mayor and Chicago Public Schools’ 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.”
Emanuel himself had no public appearances planned for Tuesday, according to the schedule released by his office.
The kickback scheme was allegedly designed to steer contracts to her former employer — a firm that landed some $23 million in no-bid deals to train, among others, Chicago principals.
Last week, the feds hit Byrd-Bennett, 66, with 20 mail and wire fraud counts in a 43-page grand jury indictment; it was filled with damning emails allegedly between Byrd-Bennett and her ex-boss, Gary Solomon. She allegedly plotted to secure a 10 percent kickback on all the Chicago Public Schools contracts she could deliver to her former employers, The SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates.
Prosecutors say she was told some of the money would funnel into college funds for her adored twin grandsons.
“I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:” the feds say Byrd-Bennett wrote in one of the many emails.
When Byrd-Bennett arrived at the courthouse, she had faced a throng of reporters and TV cameras eager to see the first chief executive of CPS to face criminal charges in connection with her job. There also was a protest across the street, where angry advocates for an elected school board were rallying on Federal Plaza.
Until her plea, Byrd-Bennett hadn’t been spotted in public here since news of the federal investigation at CPS first broke in April. And once she stepped down from CPS, she moved home to the Cleveland, Ohio, area, where her husband, grandsons and their parents live.
After the hearing, Byrd-Bennett’s attorney, Michael Scudder, also issued a statement in which he said his client “accepted full responsibility for misconduct she engaged in while working for the Chicago Public Schools, including as its CEO. She also has apologized to CPS and its children and their families.
“Barbara has devoted her life to public education. She has done an enormous amount of good for an enormous number of children throughout her career. Barbara loves the children of Chicago, is terribly sorry for her conduct, and wants nothing more than for the District to move forward with its important mission in these challenging times.”
Before the court appearance, legal experts had said a decision to plead guilty at that first court hearing would be “very unusual.” Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer, who now heads the Chicago office of the investigation firm Kroll Inc., said that simply underscored the strength of the government’s case against Byrd-Bennett.
“The emails between co-conspirators in this case really either set a new low or set a new high bar — depending on how you look at it — for Illinois corruption,” Cramer said. “I think it might be a new low for how brazen some of these people get in public corruption matters.”
Tuesday will hardly be Byrd-Bennett’s only visit to Chicago’s federal courthouse. At the very least, she will be expected to return for what could be a dramatic, high-profile sentencing hearing.
Byrd-Bennett’s co-defendants are set to be arraigned Wednesday afternoon. The indictment also snared 47-year-old Solomon of Wilmette and 34-year-old Thomas Vranas of Glenview, whose two businesses landed more than $23 million in no-bid CPS contracts.
Two of their companies, SUPES, which trained district leaders, and Synesi, which helped improve troubled schools, were indicted, too.
After years leading districts in Cleveland and Detroit, Byrd-Bennett worked as a coach for the north suburban SUPES and Synesi, and was sent to Chicago to coach a high-level district official for SUPES.
Prosecutors say that on April 29, two days before Byrd-Bennett was to succeed that woman as chief education officer, Solomon offered to keep a job waiting for Byrd-Bennett as well as friends of hers should she finagle some “deep” principal training for CPS.
He agreed to give her a percentage of gross revenues of any contract CPS awarded to SUPES, if she helped the sales, the feds say.
“It is our assumption that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES/Synesi,” Solomon emailed her in December 2012, according to the indictment. “If you join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.”
She also received tickets to basketball and baseball games, meals, and money for a holiday party she threw for CPS staffers, the indictment reads.
For several months, Solomon and Byrd-Bennett discussed the alleged kickbacks. Byrd-Bennett sent the email about casinos on the first day of the historic 2012 Chicago teachers strike.
CPS had entered into a one-year, $380,000 pilot with SUPES funded by the Chicago Public Education Fund before Byrd-Bennett took the reins. But the Fund would not agree to continue the pilot.
So in October 2012, right after Emanuel elevated her as his second permanent CEO in October, Byrd-Bennett sought a $2 million no-bid deal for SUPES, a contract that was approved by the Board of Education the same day her appointment was, and later grew to $2.3 million.
The more controversial deal — the $20.5 million no-bid contract for principal training — was approved in June 2013, a month after the same Board voted to shutter 50 schools on Byrd-Bennett’s recommendation. She sold the school closings arguing that CPS couldn’t afford to keep so many schools open in neighborhoods where enrollment dropped.
City Hall apparently raised questions about the program’s cost at a time when teachers were being laid off.
With less than 48 hours before the Board’s vote, Byrd-Bennett angrily emailed Emanuel education aide Beth Swanson: “I cannot be second-guessed like this.
“The level of micro-managing by people who have no track record and have not lead [sic] or managed anything is in some way insulting,” she wrote.
The larger SUPES contract, CPS’ largest no-bid award in recent memory, immediately drew criticism because its owners were unknowns in a field full of local expertise, and because principals complained about its poor quality. Questions about the contract were first raised by Catalyst-Chicago magazine.
As the Sun-Times has reported, CPS wanted to throw nearly $2 million in school improvement work to Synesi but the Illinois State Board of Education declined to approve Synesi in August 2013, questioning the company’s qualifications.
CPS’ inspector general’s investigation came to light in December 2013.
And then, on April 14, subpoenas landed at CPS headquarters the same day Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel both were set to speak at the Chicago Public Education Fund’s 15th anniversary celebration. They talked quietly in the lobby before the luncheon. The situation went public the next morning.