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Former Emanuel deputy confirmed for City Colleges board

Former mayoral aide Beth Swanson (left) and soon-to-be City Colleges Board Chairman Walter E. Massey listen to testimony during Monday's meeting of the City Council's Education Committee. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

A former top mayoral aide who served as conduit to now-convicted former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s co-conspirator breezed through her confirmation hearing Monday for a seat on the City Colleges board.

Members of the City Council’s Education Committee did not ask Joyce Foundation Vice President Beth Swanson a single question about the role she played as the City Hall link to SUPES Academy co-owner Gary Solomon.

After aldermen approved her appointment, Swanson refused to answer questions about the emails she exchanged with Solomon.

She would say only, “It was unacceptable what happened. That’s it.”

Byrd-Bennett was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison after tearfully pleading guilty to participating in a kickback scheme to steer millions of dollars in CPS contracts to Solomon-owned consulting companies where she formerly worked, with the promise she’d get her payoff when she left CPS.

Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Gary Solomon, the mastermind behind the CPS kickback scheme. | Sun-Times file photos
Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Gary Solomon, the mastermind behind the CPS kickback scheme. | Sun-Times file photos

Federal prosecutors alleged that Solomon, the mastermind of the contracting scandal, helped “lay the foundation” for her to take power so she would be positioned to award about $23 million in no-bid deals from CPS to his education consulting companies.

Solomon “saw an opportunity” in July 2012 after he learned that Jean-Claude Brizard wanted to leave his position as CPS CEO and shared that tidbit with Swanson, then Emanuel’s education deputy, emailing that “JC knows he is a dead man walking.”

“Will go without an issue?” Swanson asked about Brizard. Solomon replied, “We discussed safe landing options for JC’s fam.”

Swanson told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2015 that Solomon was a “serial networker who emailed constantly.”

In their plea for a shorter sentence, Solomon’s attorneys alleged that Emanuel’s staff, including Swanson, “solicited Solomon’s assistance in convincing [Byrd-Bennett] to join CPS.”

They claimed that Emanuel’s office “knew of Bennett’s employment relationship” with SUPES and that Swanson even leaned on Solomon “when Bennett ‘seemed off’ or ‘more emotional’ because she knew that Gary ‘had more context on her life,’ given their relationship.”

Also on Monday, the Education Committee approved Emanuel’s choice of Walter E. Massey, chancellor of the School of the Art Institute, to serve as City Colleges board chairman and form a team with newly appointed Chancellor Juan Salgado.

Massey is the president emeritus of Morehouse College. He replaces Dr. Charles Middleton, the retired Roosevelt University president whose two-year term as board chairman has expired.

Rookie Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) called Massey “the most qualified individual for an appointment that I have ever seen. . . . You have as many honorary degrees as we have honorary streets in the city.”