Before he became the right-hand man to the head of the Chicago Public Schools, Pedro Soto played a key role in helping CPS decide which companies should be hired to fully privatize the school system’s cleaning and engineering work worth $1 billion.
By late last year, the FBI wanted to know more about the role he played — and whether he shared inside information with someone tied to one of the companies bidding for facilities work in 2016.
Asked about that unnamed person, they say Soto said the person “would want to get information, but I don’t think I gave him anything” and that he never called the person to offer information.
He lied, federal authorities say.
In a four-page charging document that became public Thursday, Soto, 45, is charged with lying to the FBI. The document is known as an information, and it typically is a sign a defendant plans to plead guilty.
Soto, who until late last week served as chief of staff to CPS chief executive officer Janice Jackson, couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
The federal charges don’t name the company involved.
In a letter to CPS staff Thursday, Jackson said she learned of the pending charge Friday and accepted Soto’s resignation. She described Soto’s being charged as “a deeply disappointing matter that I take incredibly seriously” and said it was a “stunning betrayal of trust and an immense failure of judgment and character.”
Jackson said Soto’s case was referred to the CPS inspector general’s office last week.
“Our preliminary review indicates that Mr. Soto’s actions did not influence the award of any contract or services, and the lobbyist Mr. Soto provided nonpublic information to has not represented any current or former CPS vendors,” the schools chief wrote.
Federal prosecutors did not reveal Thursday how Soto might have influenced the bidding process for the custodial contract, only that he lied about it on Dec. 17, 2019, after the FBI began to dig into it.
The case against Soto involves a bidding process that began in April 2016 — just six months after former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in a bribery scheme that landed her in prison and left the school system reeling.
In April 2016, CPS was soliciting bids to expand the private management of cleaning and facilities services to all of its schools. The program had started under Byrd-Bennett and was vastly expanded under her successor, Forrest Claypool, despite a public outcry about the poor quality of the cleaning that left schools filthy and students lacking basic sanitation supplies, as the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.
At that time, Soto was on the evaluation committee that examined the bids. He was CPS’ $150,000 director of school operations, reporting to Jackson, who headed CPS’ academics. He became her chief of staff when she was promoted to CEO in 2017, replacing Claypool when he was forced out in an ethics scandal
The custodial management work was awarded to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC, partly owned by former NBA star Magic Johnson, which divided most of the hundreds of school buildings by geographic zones.
In 2018, as CPS prepared for the last phase of privatization, schools officials recommended awarding a $60.6 million three-year contract to GCA Educational Services Central States Inc. to manage 34 schools but yanked the measure during a Chicago Board of Education meeting hours before a vote to approve it.
CPS later said it killed the deal because GCA’s parent company had a poor track record of keeping janitors safe from sexual harassment and assault at work.
The charge against Soto involves an unnamed lobbyist for a company that bid for the custodial work as well as a second unnamed individual who worked with the lobbyist. The FBI became interested in that second person’s contacts with Soto over the contract.
Authorities say that on Dec. 17, 2019, Soto told lied four times when asked questions pertaining to the investigation.
Asked whether he ever spoke on the phone with that person about “what was going on inside CPS” regarding the contract, they say Soto told them that person “would want to get information, but I don’t think I gave him anything.”
Asked whether that person dug for information, authorities say Soto told them he would “just listen” to that person but that he wasn’t persuaded to do anything.
Had he given the person inside information about the bidding? They say Soto responded, “I don’t think that I have, no. I would — I don’t think so.”
And asked whether he ever called the person to say he had information, they say Soto told them he didn’t think that happened.