Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool is demanding that his convicted predecessor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, reimburse the cash-strapped school district about $10 million — or triple the salary she was paid at CPS and the kickbacks promised her.
Last fall, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to a scheme to get a 10 percent kickback from contracts granted to SUPES Academy, a north suburban principal training company that once employed her.
The woman once affectionately known as B3 was done in by her own audacious emails demanding a college fund for her twin grandsons. In one, she claimed she had “tuitions to pay and casinos to visit.”
Now Claypool wants to throw the book at Byrd-Bennett, using a state law that allows government agencies to go after corrupt individuals or contractors to the tune of triple the amount paid to those criminals.
Triple damages for the $893,000 Byrd-Bennett was paid over three years in total salary and benefits would amount to about $2.6 million. Three times Byrd-Bennett’s 10 percent kickback on the $23 million SUPES contracts would amount to about $7 million.
The fact that Byrd-Bennett never got that 10 percent kickback matters little to CPS. The school district can still pursue those damages.
CPS is also seeking to recover money spent on outside legal fees — it’s spent about $300,000 to date — and compensation for internal staff time spent compiling information to respond to grand jury subpoenas and countless Freedom of Information requests. The district could not immediately quantify those amounts.
Lawyers for all parties have been in conversations with CPS, but no offers are currently on the table.
Byrd-Bennett did not respond to requests for comment. Her attorney declined to comment.
As the Chicago Sun-Times has reported, she collects at least $140,000 a year in public pensions. The letters indicate that CPS could also go after insurance policies as well for her and her co-defendants.
The school contracting scandal undermined Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plea for $480 million from Springfield to solve the teacher pension crisis.
It also prompted the mayor to shake up a Board of Education that approved the SUPES contract and replaced Byrd-Bennett with Claypool, who had just returned to City Hall for a third stint as chief of staff after a successful run as CTA president.
On Tuesday, Claypool insisted that the demand for payment from Byrd-Bennett and her alleged co-conspirators, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, and their companies, SUPES and Synesi Associates, was more than mere political face-saving for a Board of Education that failed miserably in the job of policing the record no-bid principal training contract.
“Nothing is more infuriating than to watch Barbara Byrd-Bennett admit that she stole money from our kids and taxpayers, especially during a time of financial problems at the district. That’s money that came directly out of the education of our children,” Claypool said Tuesday during a telephone interview.
“It’s our responsibility to do everything possible to recover money rightfully meant to educate our children that, instead, went to line the pockets of a criminal. . . . We are aggressively pursuing every dollar we’re entltled to under the fraud statute and will be aggressively litigating to get every dollar,” he said.
The initial demand for payment from Byrd-Bennett, Solomon, Vranas, SUPES and Synesi came in certified letters dated Dec. 16 and signed by CPS attorney Ronald L. Marmer.
Conversations have been going on ever since. If those negotiations do not produce payments acceptable to CPS, then lawsuits will follow, Claypool said. CPS would not quantify how much they’re seeking from the companies or their former owners.
Tony Masciopinto, an attorney representing Solomon and the two companies, said he was in conversations with CPS about their demands. He also emphasized that his clients’ cases still are pending.
“We’ve been cooperative throughout,” he said by telephone, “but there are certainly disagreements between us and CPS on what can be obtained under these statutes and what can be proven. CPS has not outlined with specifics their precise theory of recovery but I’ve seen enough to know we disagree with that approach. I think it’s probably an overly aggressive approach.”
Vranas’ attorney did not return a message seeking comment.
The fact that Byrd-Bennett is the only one of the three who has pleaded guilty — and is now providing testimony against her alleged co-conspirators — does not preclude CPS from pursuing damages against all three and their companies in a civil suit, Claypool said.
“The bar in civil cases is not the same as in criminal cases. We can pursue this case right now with the facts that we have,” Claypool said, likening the civil case to the one against O.J. Simpson after Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend in a criminal case.
Byrd-Bennett is the former Detroit school chief who forged a bond with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis that helped negotiate an end to the 2012 teachers strike.
Just weeks after replacing schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard at the bargaining table, Byrd-Bennett replaced Brizard as CEO. She dutifully carried the water for the record 50 school closings that nearly cost Emanuel a second term.
One week after the election, federal subpoenas arrived at the Chicago Board of Education targeting Byrd-Bennett and the $23 million in no-bid principal training contracts she steered to her former employer.
Byrd-Bennett was forced to take a leave of absence that would soon become permanent. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a scheme to get a 10 percent kickback scheme.
Emanuel insisted that neither he nor anyone else in the mayor’s office played a role in the contract at the heart of the scandal and never met Solomon, SUPES’ owner , who was once forced out of a north suburban school district and was indicted along with Byrd-Bennett. But he refused to release internal emails that would prove the point.
The SUPES contract raised eyebrows from the outset because the company once employed Byrd-Bennett; because of the poor quality of training; and because similar training could easily have been done at far less cost by Chicago-area universities that specialize in it and because of its enormous cost.
The largest no-bid contract in CPS history was also awarded shortly after the furor over Byrd-Bennett’s decision to shutter a record 50 schools.
CPS has since tightened the reins on no-bid contracts and put a series of other safeguards in place.
The demand for re-payment is one more step in the process of trying to restore public confidence severely shaken by the scandal.
“Clearly, Barbara-Byrd Bennett’s conduct was damaging — not just to taxpayers and our kids, but to the system. It’s important that we send a strong message that we’re going after every single dollar that was stolen or wrongfully appropriated,” Claypool said.
“This is important to make sure to make sure we are not letting any of this stand if we can get it clawed back from these criminals who were trusted with the responsibility for education our children and serving the taxpayers of Chicago.”