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Feds: Free trips bind crooked CPS CEO Byrd-Bennett, textbook company

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks on Oct. 13, 2015, before leaving federal court in Chicago after pleading guilty to helping steer $23 million in no-bid contracts to education firms for $2.3 million in kickbacks and bribes. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times via AP

For some reason, the executive from one of the country’s biggest educational publishing companies really wanted Barbara Byrd-Bennett to travel to Miami. And Byrd-Bennett vowed to “try my darn best to get there” — but only if the company paid for her to sit in first class on every flight of her journey.

There was another change she insisted on before agreeing to fly to Miami, Byrd-Bennett told Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employees. Citing a “real health issue” with her leg, she said, “A middle seat which I have is out of the question.”

At the urging of a high-ranking company executive, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt agreed to Byrd-Bennett’s requests, coughing up nearly $1,100 for the first-class ticket for her in January 2010, according to federal court records.

The airfare to Miami was a pittance compared to the $40 million contract Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had landed a few months earlier in Detroit, where Byrd-Bennett was then working as a contractor for the public school district. The Detroit deal came as the result of a hastily arranged bid process that federal authorities suspected was rigged by Byrd-Bennett and two top aides.

Byrd-Bennett — who was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Public Schools chief from 2012 until May — pleaded guilty last month to rigging contracts worth $23 million in anticipation of a 10 percent kickback. She is cooperating with authorities in the ongoing probe.

Years before the CPS corruption case broke into public view last spring, the FBI was investigating Byrd-Bennett’s actions during a two-year stint as Detroit’s chief academic and accountability officer, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

No charges have been filed in the Detroit case. But newly unsealed court documents obtained by the Sun-Times provide the most complete picture yet of how federal authorities viewed the cozy relationship between Byrd-Bennett and Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

After being superintendent of Cleveland’s school district, and before arriving in Detroit in 2009 for $18,000 a month, Byrd-Bennett had worked for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for about three years, for more than $154,000 a year, according to the feds. She left her job as the company’s “superintendent in residency” in March 2009 and would return in 2011 to work part time for $182,000 a year.

But in mid-2009, court records show, Byrd-Bennett rented a house in a Detroit suburb with two aides, Tracy Martin and Sherry Ulery. They had worked together in Cleveland and would later work together at CPS, after Emanuel appointed Byrd-Bennett as his schools chief in 2012.

The feds say they “jointly signed a lease agreement” for a brick townhouse located about 27 miles from the headquarters of Detroit Public Schools.

Almost as soon as the three women arrived in Detroit, they allegedly began working to award a contract to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Initially, Detroit’s district tried to broker a deal without any public bidding.

A Detroit schools official named David Costa, though, pointed out that a formal request for proposals, or RFP, was legally required, according to the court records. Once that request was made public, Costa told the FBI he came under pressure from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt executive John Winkler.

“Costa recalled that John Winkler called him and screamed at him about the fact that an RFP was required,” an FBI agent wrote in a previously secret court filing. “Winkler stated that ‘this was going down.’ ”

Winkler is the same executive who later allegedly arranged for Byrd-Bennett to fly to Miami on his company’s dime, telling her, “I really want to try to make it so you can get there.” The court records didn’t explain why Byrd-Bennett was traveling.

Costa also told the feds in a 2013 interview that Martin and another schools official named Leon Glaster “had also called him and were upset that the RFP was required.” Soon after, “Glaster told Costa that his services were no longer required” at the Detroit school district, the records show.

Costa confirmed that account in an interview Thursday.

“Tracy wanted it done. Leon wanted it done. They all wanted it done and they were all adamant that it be done, that it not be bid,” he said. “Everyone wanted Harcourt to get $40 million.”

But Glaster denied Costa’s version.

“I didn’t fire anybody and I wasn’t upset about anything,” he said, adding he has not been contacted by the FBI.

A spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt declined to comment Thursday, and attempts to reach Winkler were unsuccessful.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was chosen for Detroit schools over two other bidders. The company was rated highest by a three-person panel consisting of Martin, Ulery and Byrd-Bennett’s chief of staff.

In addition to asking for Byrd-Bennett’s personal AOL emails, federal investigators sought and received court permission to access private emails of Martin and Ulery.

Court records show Houghton Mifflin Harcourt also paid for Byrd-Bennett, Martin and Ulery to travel to company offices in Evanston in March 2011. In an email, a company employee promised to pay for their flights, hotel rooms and a car service, writing, “We are looking forward to hosting you in Evanston.”

Martin and Ulery could not be reached for comment. Byrd-Bennett’s lawyer declined to comment.

Martin and Ulery have not been charged with wrongdoing, although the Chicago FBI sent subpoenas to CPS in April for records about them.

Contributing: Jon Seidel