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Byrd-Bennett gets 4 1/2 years in prison: ‘I ought to be punished’

Former Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett before being sentenced. | James Foster / Sun-Times

A federal judge on Friday sent the mayor’s second schools chief to prison with a diatribe against a steady stream of public corruption he said threatens Chicago’s very well-being.

“It’s distressing that Chicago has not — nor seems to be able to — shed its image of public corruption,” Judge Edmond Chang said before he sentenced disgraced Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to 4 ½ years in prison. “People in Chicago and all of Illinois want to see if Chicago can ever be a city that works for its people and not for public officials and those that pay bribes. … The fact that the crime was committed during CPS’ budget crisis did make it all the worse.”

Byrd-Bennett steered $23 million in no-bid contracts to the consultants who’d previously employed her; in return, she expected hundreds of thousand of dollars in kickbacks — though she never saw any of it.

The largest of the three no-bid deals was a jaw-dropping $20.5 million principal training contract. It was finalized a month after Byrd-Bennett controversially shuttered 50 neighborhood schools in 2013.

During a 10-minute speech punctuated by sniffles and sobs Byrd-Bennett told Chang that despite initially lying to the FBI, she takes responsibility for her crimes against the children of the country’s third-largest school district.

“I was the CEO — not Gary Solomon, not Tom Vranas,” she said of her co-defendants, who owned The SUPES Academy, which got that contract. “I ought to be punished.”

Byrd-Bennett will report to a federal prison on August 28, possibly to the minimum security camp in Alderson, West Virginia, to serve 54 months. By then she’ll be 68, a factor Chang said he considered.

That means Solomon bears the brunt of the punishment, in addition to having earned the most money off those contracts. He was sentenced to seven years in prison last month for wire fraud.

Thomas Vranas. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times files
Thomas Vranas. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times files

Vranas was given just 18 months Friday morning for conspiracy after the government acknowledged he never would have been part of the scheme if not for his relationship with Solomon, his high school mentor-turned-business partner.

“When he came in, he was a breath of fresh air,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church said, describing Vranas’ cooperation as “candid” and “forthcoming.” But she also noted he was part of the scheme to use “clout to get contracts.”

The 36-year-old, who had sought probation, cried upon learning he’ll go to prison for a year and a half.

Church had wanted higher sentences for both — 89 months for Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud, saying “before coming here she chose to sell out her integrity — and she did so for the promise of a payout of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Much of the scheme that unfolded in 2012 and 2013 was captured in hundreds of frank and frequently humorous emails sent at all hours of the day and night, including Byrd-Bennett’s now infamous, emoji-punctuated, “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:”

In them, Church said, “you saw greed, naked greed — someone looking to profit from a broken, near-bankrupt school system.”

But being forced by her lawyers to read those emails is what Byrd-Bennett said pulled her out of “denial” about her culpability in hiding her financial relationship from CPS.

Her attorney, Michael Scudder, argued that a 3 ½-year-sentence plus community service to show other districts how to avoid the pitfalls that snared her would suffice and be “better than to leave her silent sitting in jail.”

Plus, he said, she never saw any of the money she had wanted to benefit her beloved twin grandsons.

Also turning up to court was Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who sat behind Byrd-Bennett’s family. Byrd-Bennett’s camaraderie with Lewis — who detested Emanuel — was credited with resolving the 2012 teachers strike, a win that made the veteran schools chief a natural fit for CEO.

“I was asked to come,” Lewis said before the hearing. Asked by whom, she replied: “Who do you think?”

Of the appointee he had affectionately called “B3,” Emanuel dispatched a statement via spokesman Adam Collins: “Barbara betrayed the public trust. She broke the law. She turned her back on the very children she was entrusted to serve, and the children of Chicago are owed much better than that.”

A few threads in this sordid chapter in CPS and Chicago corruption history still remain. CPS’ inspector general, whose office launched the probe that led to the federal subpoenas, said he’s still looking at how CPS’ procurement process failed. And Acting U.S. Attorney Joel Levin repeatedly declined to answer questions about the status of an investigation into Byrd-Bennett’s time in Detroit as well as the names of other companies Solomon told the FBI about.

All three also still face a lawsuit CPS filed seeking some $65 million in damages from the fraud. Meanwhile, Byrd-Bennett is on the hook for about $116,000 total in restitution and fines. Vranas’ share is about $50,000, and Solomon’s $101,000.

Contributing: Jon Seidel