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Watchdogs update: CPS moves to ban clouted bus company

Buses at Jewel's Bus Company, 1035 W. 111th St. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools leaders are poised to finally block a politically connected bus company from being eligible to get any future business from CPS — years after the firm was first accused of overbilling the school system.

The move to “debar” Jewel’s Bus Co., which the Chicago Board of Education is set to vote on Wednesday, comes a year and a half after federal prosecutors charged owner Jewel Lockhart with income-tax evasion.

Schools officials say Jewel’s “overbilled the board an estimated $3 million” by submitting “false and/or exaggerated bills,” records show.

The clout-heavy bus company, based on the South Side, also “used vans instead of buses in violation of its contract with the board and created a potential safety issue for the students transported in those vans” in 2010 and 2011.

In 2014, CPS first accused Jewel’s of over-charging and fired the company. At the time, officials threatened to ban Jewel’s from ever again getting CPS business but didn’t act on that threat until now. A CPS spokeswoman wouldn’t discuss Monday the reasons for that delay.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2016 that the Chicago Park District hired Jewel’s to bus kids to and from summer camps that year — despite warnings from a CPS official who said he had “uncovered a great deal of illegal activity” by the company.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson intervened with schools officials on behalf of Jewel’s in 2010 and again in 2015, records showed. Jackson told the newspaper he called then-CPS CEO Forrest Claypool three years ago to defend Lockhart’s company because she was an “outstanding community servant” he’d known for years.

Though a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago would not comment, court records show prosecutors have been involved in plea negotiations with Lockhart for months.

Her lawyer, Matthew Madden, declined to comment. A message left at the offices of Jewel’s was not returned.

CPS paid Jewel’s more than $75 million in the 11 years before the school system broke its contract with the company in July 2014.

In September 2016, federal prosecutors charged Lockhart with cheating on her taxes by “substantially” understating her income “from individual CPS schools and other clients.”

Contributing: Jon Seidel