Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett believes she deserves far less prison time for an audacious kickback scheme than the seven-plus years the government is seeking, asking the judge she’ll soon face for three and a half years tops.
Justice could be served by a shorter prison term, her attorney wrote Friday, if accompanied by “very substantial community service that would harness her unique expertise at school districts and private consulting companies alike for the benefit of public education everywhere.
“Barbara wants to help others learn from her mistakes,” defense attorney Michael Scudder wrote in a 27-page sentencing memo published Friday. “She believes that superintendents and school districts across the nation need to redouble their efforts to avoid conflicts of interest with consultants and providers.”
And, laying out her storied history as an educator, he said she’s in a “position to uniquely reach such officials,” and to “help sound the alarm of the necessity for caution and transparency.”
But Scudder added that Byrd-Bennett is not in a financial position to pay her share of $254,000 in restitution to CPS, unless the others who actually saw profits from the scheme can’t pay the whole thing on their own. “Only if those defendants cannot make full restitution should Barbara be responsible for any remaining portion,” Scudder wrote.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second chosen schools chief was busted for agreeing to take kickbacks from educational consulting companies owned by her former employers, to whom she’d steered some $23 million in no-bid contracts in 2012 and 2013. She never pocketed any of the millions made by those companies’ owners. She was not going to collect any of the kickbacks until leaving CPS to return to their employ; she intended to use the money for her twin grandsons’ college funds.
“I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:” read the email that secured her a place in Chicago corruption history.
Among the proud accomplishments Byrd-Bennett promoted to Judge Edmond Chang were the mass school closings finalized a month before the largest $20.5 contract was awarded. And several of the 91 letters written on her behalf came from high-ranking CPS employees Byrd-Bennett hired or promoted — testing czar John Barker, college chief Aarti Dhupelia and academic chief Annette Gurley. Staffers she brought to CPS from past stints in Cleveland or New York also submitted character letters, including one woman named in the federal subpoenas that rocked CPS in April 2015.
When Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty within days of her October 2015 indictment, offering a tearful apology to the children of CPS, prosecutors said they’d recommend a reduced sentence of 89 months — about two-thirds of the low end of the sentencing guidelines.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church held to that number, saying: “She knew her victims, she knew their weaknesses and struggles and she chose to defraud them anyway. … Their corruption was sophisticated and it was nearly undetectable.”
Church noted that Byrd-Bennett also deleted incriminating emails after the CPS inspector general opened a probe.
But even after she initially lied to investigators, Byrd-Bennett’s haste to admit her own guilt and eventual cooperation against her two co-defendants, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, should count for something, Church said. The men were co-owners of The SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates.
Church had also argued that Solomon “must get a higher sentence than Barbara Byrd-Bennett” as the scheme’s “mastermind.” Last month, Chang gave Solomon seven years.
Solomon and Vranas, who ran the principal training firm and school “turnaround” company, promised to set aside money they called a “signing bonus.” Solomon also was a “steady source of personal support and reassurance when stress levels peaked,” her attorney wrote.
Church detailed the extent to which they had served her: “In his proffer, Vranas explained that Byrd-Bennett had assembled a list of items she needed from a Target store. Solomon obtained the items, which he and Vranas paid for, and then delivered them to Byrd-Bennett’s driver. Vranas also explained that Byrd-Bennett asked Solomon to acquire anti-surveillance equipment to debug her office because Jean-Claude Brizard had believed that the mayor was listening to his conversations via a surveillance bug hidden within his (Brizard’s) office. Vranas purchased debugging equipment but never used it within Byrd- Bennett’s office.”
The mayor’s office denied any such surveillance.
Prosecutors again Friday recommended a 39-month sentence for Vranas, 36, who owned a third of the companies with Solomon, 49. That sentence was unchanged from what prosecutors had advised when Vranas pleaded guilty last April to federal program bribery.
Vranas lobbied for probation instead of prison in a memo his attorneys filed Thursday, arguing that he was taken along for a ride. His sentencing is scheduled for April 28.
“While he did not operate from a position equal to that of Solomon or Byrd-Bennett, Vranas was not a passive participant in the honest services fraud scheme and he knew better,” Church wrote, detailing how Vranas flattered her with emails and gifts as well.
“If you need ** ANYTHING** let me know. A cocktail, some laughing, a quick run to the casino, we’re here for you!!!” he wrote her in September 2012.
“You guys are my family away from home,” she responded. “CASINO….hmmmmm (:”