Barbara Byrd-Bennett is out of prison and back at home, five years after her tenure as Chicago Public Schools CEO ended with news of a federal grand jury investigation into an eight-figure, no-bid contract.
But CPS still wants its money back.
Byrd-Bennett, 70, left a minimum-security prison camp in West Virginia on Tuesday, having served just shy of three years for her role in a brazen kickback scheme that did serious damage to CPS’ reputation and bottom line — and added another classic line to the lexicon of Chicago corruption with her emailed quip, “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:”
She steered $22.5 million in no-bid contracts to consultants who had once employed her. In return, she expected hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks — but never saw a dime.
Though she had been sentenced to 4 ½ years behind bars, her release this week came as the result of a Justice Department policy aimed at releasing non-violent offenders at risk of getting the coronavirus. As a result, Byrd-Bennett is returning to a world that has changed drastically since she went to prison — an experience similar to that of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was freed from prison through a commutation by President Donald Trump in February, just before the virus hit.
“I’m extremely happy to be home,” Byrd-Bennett said in a statement released by her lawyer. “I’m thankful for my family, friends, legal counsel, and all who assisted and supported me during this time.”
There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus among inmates or staff at the facility in Alderson, West Virginia, where Byrd-Bennett served her sentence, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Byrd-Bennett’s attorney, Erica Zunkel, confirmed the former CPS CEO’s release to home confinement. The Bureau of Prisons said the transfer occurred Tuesday, and Byrd-Bennett is officially under the purview of a residential re-entry office in Cincinnati. She and her husband have long lived in Ohio.
Still, this does not completely bring to an end one of the more embarrassing episodes of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure.
Byrd-Bennett will not officially be released from the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons until June 2021. She must still serve an additional year of supervised release after that. A co-defendant and accused mastermind of the scheme, Gary Solomon, remains in prison, though a sentencing break is in the works for him, too. Solomon’s business partner, Thomas Vranas, has completed his 18-month sentence.
And then there’s the matter of the lawsuit filed by CPS.
Forrest Claypool, tagged by the mayor to clean up CPS in Byrd-Bennett’s wake, filed a $65 million lawsuit against her, Solomon and Vranas, owners of The Supes Academy, alleging that Illinois law entitled CPS to three times what the scheme cost the school system.
Claypool filed suit with great hoopla in 2016 as he stared down a crippling budget deficit, days after he froze principals’ spending to conserve cash. Signing the complaint was Ronald Marmer, Claypool’s general counsel whose ethics violation led to Claypool’s own ouster in 2017.
Now the case is on COVID-19-related hiatus in Cook County Circuit Court against all three defendants, who have already paid $256,000 in court-ordered restitution, a sliver of what CPS is seeking. Schools officials have backed down from their initial demand but still have asked a judge to award $16.3 million — the $15.4 million CPS paid to SUPES plus another $869,000 to Byrd-Bennett.