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Legal bills adding up from CPS probe

“We view it as semi-pro bono work,” former federal prosecutor Ron Safer says of the discount legal rate being given to the Chicago Public Schools for representing CPS and four former officials regarding a federal investigation. | Sun-Times file photo

The legal bills resulting from the federal investigation that led to Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s departure as the city’s schools chief are piling up for the Chicago Public Schools, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

CPS so far has spent more than $150,000 on lawyers who are representing four former school officials, including three who were Byrd-Bennett’s friends and part of her inner circle at the district., the records show

It hired the white-collar law firm Schiff Hardin for the work — and got a discount on two of the firm’s partners who are former federal prosecutors.

The firm agreed to accept fees of $295 an hour — the highest rate CPS will pay for legal fees, according to schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey.

But that’s far below the $830 an hour normally billed by Matt Crowl, who left the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago in 2003, initially to work for then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, and the $905 rate usually billed by Ron Safer, another longtime prosecutor who once headed the federal prosecutor’s office’s criminal division in Chicago.

“We view it as semi-pro bono work,” Safer said. “This is not a unique case. There’s nothing special about that rate.”

Days after federal authorities subpoenaed CPS records that included documents related to a $20.5 million, no-bid contract for principal training with SUPES Academy, Byrd-Bennett’s former employer, Schiff Hardin began representing the district and top Byrd-Bennett aides and longtime associates Sherry Ulery, Rosemary Herpel and Tracy Martin — with those legal expenses paid for by the district.

About a month later, CPS also agreed to cover legal representation for Steve Gering, who as the school system’s former chief of leadership support, had been in charge of recruiting and developing principals, the records show. Federal investigators wanted to speak with him, McCaffrey said.

“His interview was related to his duties while he was employed by the district, and so we have a legal obligation to cover the expense,” McCaffrey said.

He said Gering resigned effective May 31, 2013 — about one month before the Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the SUPES deal without seeking bids for the work from anyone else.

Gering did not return messages seeking comment.

The records federal investigators subpoenaed in April included documents about SUPES and two other companies, Synesi Associates and PROACT Search, who have the same owners — Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas. The records sought included details regarding any reimbursements, meal expenses and gifts.

Also subpoenaed were employment records for Byrd-Bennett, Ulery, Herpel and Martin.

Also, Ulery, who was Byrd-Bennett’s $175,000-a-year-chief of staff,and Herpel, a $140,000-a year “executive director of leadership development,” were called to testify before a federal grand jury.

Byrd-Bennett resigned effective in June. Ulery, Martin and Herpel left CPS later the same month.

No one has been charged with any crime as a result of the federal probe.

The heavily redacted bills released by CPS as the result of a request made under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act show the law firm began working for CPS on April 14 — the day the subpoenas came in. Those prompted more than four hours of meetings with Crowl, the records show.

By the end of June, CPS had been billed $153,388.83 for about 500 hours of legal work and expenses. That’s how mucht CPS has paid the firm so far. It’s more than half of the $250,000 authorized in April by the Board of Education.

Byrd-Bennett, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, has hired her own attorney — Michael Scudder, who is also a former federal prosecutor.

McCaffrey would not say why CPS isn’t paying for her attorney, citing the ongoing investigation.

Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos