Second player in CPS contract scandal pleads guilty

SHARE Second player in CPS contract scandal pleads guilty

Thomas Vranas, president of principal-training firm SUPES Academy. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

Another defendant in the SUPES scandal that ousted Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has admitted his guilt Tuesday in the multimillion-dollar kickback scheme that was captured in damning emails.

Vranas tried to delete some of those emails once he realized investigators began probing, but failed to destroy them for good. “Everyone sucks and is greedy,” he wrote in one spelling out just how much money Barbara Byrd-Bennett would get for steering an eventual $23 million in CPS contracts to SUPES and other education companies Vranas owned with Gary Solomon.

Named last fall in a 23-count indictment with Byrd-Bennett and Solomon, Vranas, 35, pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery before U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang. The charge carries a maximum of five years in prison, but prosecutors say if Vranas continues to cooperate, they will recommend that sentence be knocked down by a third. They also will drop the other charges against him.

According to the plea agreement, from about fall 2012 to spring 2014, Vranas set aside money equal to between 4 percent and 9 percent of what SUPES and Synesi collected and put it in a “‘development fund,’ a portion of which funds Vranas understood would be paid to Byrd-Bennett upon her return to SUPES as a reward for her efforts to obtain contracts for the SUPES Entities with CPS. Vranas was aware that the ‘development fund’ reached approximately $360,000 to $380,000.”

Vranas must also pay $254,000 in restitution, which is about 10 percent of the first no-bid deal Byrd-Bennett gave to SUPES. That’s money that should’ve gone to CPS, Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Cuniffe Church said.

Vranas, of Glenview, did not speak except to answer the judge’s questions. He told Chang his ability to understand the case was not hindered by medication to treat anxiety and depression diagnosed about a year ago, when subpoenas landed at the SUPES office and at CPS. He said he’s been working part time for a startup company that deals with higher education.

Vranas left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. His attorney, Michael Monico, also declined to comment.

The former Niles West student teamed up with Solomon, 47, whom he knew as a dean at that school until forced out in a scandal. Together for about seven years, they ran SUPES to train school leaders and Synesi Associates to improve struggling schools, and employed Byrd-Bennett at both companies.

SUPES sent Byrd-Bennett to CPS as a coach for Chicago administrators starting in the fall of 2011. And their plotting allegedly began even before she was hired as the district’s second in command and later promoted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to CEO.

Solomon negotiated Byrd-Bennett’s deals with CPS and worked out the kickback details, Church said, but Vranas was fully aware of them. He also knew that she slipped them bid information that would help them beat any competitors.

Vranas also determined that they should not route her share of proceeds into accounts for her young twin grandsons. Rather, he held it aside for her in a line item called the “development fund” to be paid to her the first day she returned to SUPES full time after CPS.

Byrd-Bennett never saw any of that money, according to prosecutors, though she was handed meals, airplane tickets and tickets to sporting events.

She pleaded guilty in October, within a week of being indicted, and made a tearful apology to the children of Chicago. In exchange for her continued cooperation, prosecutors offered a recommended reduced prison sentence of 7 1/2 years, which will be determined once the other cases are resolved.

She resigned from CPS in June and still collects at least $140,000 a year in pensions from other states where she has worked.

Solomon has pleaded not guilty in the case. His attorney has said that plea-related discussions with prosecutors are ongoing, though an October trial date also has been set.

Meanwhile, CPS has sued all three to try to recoup $65 million in restitution and damages the district claims it’s entitled to as a result of fraud.

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