Emails: Ex-CPS CEO was outraged City Hall questioned no-bid deal

SHARE Emails: Ex-CPS CEO was outraged City Hall questioned no-bid deal

Late one evening in June 2013, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked Chicago schools chief, sent an outraged email to the mayor’s top City Hall education aide.

Angry at being questioned about the $20.5 million, no-bid contract she was about to hand to her former employers at the SUPES Academy, Byrd-Bennett wrote Emanuel 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.”

Byrd-Bennett ended the email with a veiled threat to quit as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools.

“Either people think I can do this or … what do they want?” she said in the email, sent at 8:58 p.m. on June 24, 2013.

Two days later, six Emanuel appointees on the Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the SUPES deal for training school principals — the deal at the heart of federal fraud and bribery indictments announced Thursday against Byrd-Bennett and the education consulting company’s two owners, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas.

Federal prosecutors say she set up a scheme to get a 10 percent kickback on all of the CPS contracts she could steer to Solomon and Vranas, in part to set up a college fund for her twin grandsons.

Announcing the charges Thursday, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon cited detailed emails between her and Solomon discussing the scheme.

“I think those emails reflect greed,” Fardon said.

He said Byrd-Bennett will plead guilty.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announcing the indictment Thursday of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announcing the indictment Thursday of former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

But in 2013, Byrd-Bennett was defiant, according to transcripts of emails between her office and City Hall that CPS released Friday in response to a records request under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.

“Venting but this is renal for me,” Byrd-Bennett wrote Swanson. “Everything is … micro-questioned.”

The tirade capped an exchange that apparently began with a series of questions from the mayor’s office about the SUPES deal.

Just before 6:30 p.m. on June 24, 2013, a CPS deputy press secretary asked the district’s then-personnel director, Alicia Winckler, and an official in charge of hiring principals for more information about the proposal that was set to come to the Board of Ed. for approval less than 48 hours later.

“There is some concern that we’re spending a large sum on some principals while laying off others, and teachers,” deputy press secretary David Miranda wrote, saying the questions had come to CPS from the mayor’s office.

According to Miranda, who referred to Byrd-Bennett as B3 — the nickname the mayor used for her — City Hall wanted to know the answers to these questions:

“Can you tell us how much money is spent on principal development in total? Where does SUPES fit into that — does it replace a previous training regimen, is it supplemental? Where does the money come from? Is this one of B3’s pillars? Do we have any principals or third-party validators who could speak favorably about the program? Any additional info you can provide on the program, especially its benefits and value vs. cost?”

Though that email wasn’t addressed to her, Byrd-Bennett, told about it,  instructed Winckler to tell the mayor’s office that SUPES — which had been working for CPS on a more limited basis — was the “principal training vehicle for the district … previously disjointed and multiple strategies were used.”

Byrd-Bennett told Winckler it “should be noted” that SUPES works for the American Association of School Administrators. That group cut ties to SUPES after federal agents served subpoenas to CPS in April and raided the offices of SUPES, which was based in Wilmette.

“Would they like for me to answer directly?” Byrd-Bennett asked.

Winckler told her she’d handle the response. That evening, Winckler sent a lengthy reply, telling City Hall, “SUPES is uniquely qualified for this work.”

The top spokeswoman for CPS at the time, Becky Carroll, wrote that she was “calling Lisa to explain.”

Lisa Schrader, at that time Emanuel’s chief of staff, said Friday the questions about SUPES had come from her after schools official presented the agenda for their next board meeting to the mayor’s office.

“Unfortunately, as the U.S. attorney made abundantly clear on Thursday, Byrd-Bennett was intent even before her tenure at CPS to deliberately mislead everyone about the contracts and her relationship with SUPES,” Schrader told the Sun-Times.

By the time her aides had issued a response to City Hall’s questions, Byrd-Bennett already had written to Swanson, complaining about her treatment by City Hall.

“I wear all of the problems … No credit for anything positive,” Byrd-Bennett wrote.

She made similar complaints in other emails to a more sympathetic ear — Solomon. In August, the Sun-Times reported that Byrd-Bennett repeatedly confided in Solomon about her feelings toward the Emanuel administration. Writing from her CPS email account, she told him in one email, “I am not sure they get what they are doing … I just cannot be lead [sic] around by the nose like this … just not who I am.”

She also told Solomon she was considering quitting, to which he replied, “Screw them.”

CPS officials initially declined to release Byrd-Bennett’s June 24, 2013, email to Swanson, citing an exemption in the state’s open-records law for correspondence involving “preliminary” deliberations. But in the wake of the indictments, officials said, “CPS believes that the public interest is best served by the release.”

The mayor’s office and Swanson declined to comment Friday.

In July, Swanson told the Sun-Times she was so concerned about a potential conflict that she raised questions to the school board about the relationship between Byrd-Bennett and Solomon in advance of the SUPES vote.

“But this was the board’s decision, and they were comfortable moving forward,” Swanson said. 

David Vitale, then the board president, said he had “no recollection of talking to” Swanson about SUPES.

Byrd-Bennett’s attorney, Michael Scudder, declined to comment Friday. On Thursday, Scudder confirmed Byrd-Bennett would plead guilty, “accepting full responsibility for her conduct.

“She will continue to cooperate with the government, including testifying truthfully if called upon to do so,” Scudder said.

It’s unclear whether she will have to. Solomon’s lawyer Shelly Kulwin said he expected a “pretrial resolution” for his client.

Vranas’ lawyer, Michael Monico, declined to comment.

Also charged are SUPES and Synesi Associates, another company founded by Solomon and Vranas that got CPS business while Byrd-Bennett was Chicago’s schools chief.

Emails regarding SUPES contract

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