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Lawsuit over Chicago school scandal stalls, ‘mastermind’ off to prison

Thomas Vranas (left) Vranas, 36, is serving 18 months in Thomson, Illinois, and Gary Solomon is set to begin doing his prison time Tuesday in Duluth, Minnesota. | Sun-Times files

The last of the three figures convicted in the scandal that ensnared former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett reports to federal prison Tuesday, but CPS is still fighting to recover money from the trio for defrauding the school system.

Cash-strapped CPS announced in March 2016 it would sue for up to $65 million in much-needed damages from Byrd-Bennett and the two owners of the SUPES Academy — the suburban firm to which she steered $23 million in no-bid contracts while she oversaw Chicago’s schools.

Over CPS’ objections, the lawsuit was put on hold while Byrd-Bennett and SUPES co-owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas’ criminal cases were pending. But the civil case resumed once all three pleaded guilty and were given prison time.

On Tuesday, Solomon, 49, is set to report to a minimum-security federal prison in Duluth, Minnesota, to begin serving a seven-year sentence while pursuing an appeal of his conviction, according to his lawyer, Mark Flessner.

Flessner said Solomon wants to resolve the civil case but that Ronald Marmer, CPS’s general counsel, “won’t return anybody’s phone calls.”

“We want to resolve this litigation,” Flessner said. “He won’t engage. He wants to impress you all or the taxpayers and let them think he’s doing something instead of really litigating this case. The case has gone nowhere.”

Marmer didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said only, “We continue to pursue these damages and have no additional comment on ongoing litigation.”

Under Illinois law, the school system can triple the amount of the damages of a fraud. CPS counted the $16 million that was paid to SUPES as the key figure in calculating that it’s owed $65 million by the three defendants.

Schools chief Forrest Claypool has said that CPS’s financial “dire straits” compel him to go after every possible dollar from the defendants’ “scheme to divert needed resources away from classrooms and line their own pockets.”

Flessner and lawyers for Byrd-Bennett and Vranas said the $65 million figure “isn’t based in law and is la la land” and are seeking to have parts of the lawsuit dismissed.

Bittner also would not say whether CPS has received any of the $254,000 that the defendants paid to the court in restitution.

Disgraced former Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett before being sentenced April 28. | James Foster / Sun-Times
Disgraced former Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett before being sentenced April 28. | James Foster / Sun-Times

The school system’s lawyers argue that Solomon and Vranas profited handsomely from their three deals with CPS. Before being undone by investigators’ finding emails that promised Byrd-Bennett kickbacks for contracts and a high-paid job after leaving CPS, Solomon made millions through SUPES, court filings show.

Byrd-Bennett gets government pensions estimated to pay her at least $140,000 a year from past school jobs she held before CPS.

Last fall, CPS asked Cook County Circuit Judge Raymond W. Mitchell to move the case along, saying that “a public school district should not be forced to receive slower justice simply because the fraudulent conduct . . . is so egregious that it attracted the federal criminal authorities.”

Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas want the judge to base any damages solely on the $2 million from their first, October 2012 CPS deal for which they were convicted and not also include the subsequent $20.5 million contract they were given.

It was that whopping deal that caught the attention of the CPS inspector general and federal investigators. But charges tied to that contract were dropped in exchange for the trio’s guilty pleas.

Solomon has said in court filings that he shouldn’t be responsible for paying back Byrd-Bennett’s salary and that he made, at most, “$508,000 in gross profits.”

Byrd-Bennett has argued she never pocketed any money from the scheme because the promise of as much as 10 percent of the contracts was to be paid only after she left CPS and went back to work for Solomon. Her attorney declined to comment.

Byrd-Bennett, 68, recently reported to a minimum-security federal facility in West Virginia — where Martha Stewart did her time — that’s known for its low security and varied amenities and as a result has been called “Camp Cupcake.” That’s where she’s to serve her sentence of four and a half years.

Vranas, 36, is serving his 18-month sentence in Thomson, Illinois.

Contributing: Jon Seidel