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Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s Detroit contracts under federal investigation

Contracts awarded in Detroit by Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former Chicago Public Schools CEO who pleaded guilty this week in a kickback scheme, are now under federal investigation, officials confirmed Thursday.

Before she came to CPS, Byrd-Bennett was an $18,000-a-month chief academic and accountability auditor in Detroit under emergency manager Robert Bobb.

During her 2009-2011 tenure, DPS awarded some $3.4 million in contracts to Synesi Associates, one of the north suburban companies now under indictment along with co-owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas. DPS also awarded more work to PROACT Search, another of Solomon’s and Vranas’ education service companies, to fill five top positions once Byrd-Bennett left that district and became a coach for Synesi and SUPES, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in September.

According to Detroit Public Schools board member Annie Carter, DPS and Byrd-Bennett also were criticized for a $40 million contract that the district of about 87,000 students at the time awarded to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers, for whom she had previously worked before Bobb hired her.

“You guys shed more light on it than we were able to in the community,” Carter told the Sun-Times on Thursday. “The community was coming after her on that $40 million contract.”

Federal Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Jill Washburn told the Sun-Times in an email, “The investigation that you are referring to is on-going, which means that I am not able to comment on it.”

Asked further about the subject of the probe, she said, “It would only be in extreme circumstances that we would comment on any open investigation. This would not be one of those instances.”

Detroit schools spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said in a statement: “As with any matter where there are allegations of misconduct, the district investigates internally and works cooperatively with the law enforcement agency handling such matters. In the case of Ms. Byrd-Bennett, we are continuing to work closely with law enforcement officials.”

Zdrodowski declined further comment. Bobb did not return calls.

Vranas’ attorney, Michael Monico, declined to comment. Solomon’s lawyer, Shelly Kulwin, said: “We don’t know what the government is doing. We have no knowledge of what they’re doing” in Detroit or any other city.

Indicted last week on 20 counts, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to a single wire fraud charge on Tuesday, admitting she hid from CPS a lucrative arrangement with Solomon and Vranas in which she’d steer contracts to them — $23 million total — in exchange for 10 percent that would in part funnel into college funds for her twin grandsons. Prosecutors will recommend a prison sentence based on how fully she cooperates with them, as she has said she will do.

Byrd-Bennett’s attorney, Michael Scudder, declined to comment.

Solomon and Vranas pleaded not guilty Wednesday to wire and mail fraud and bribery counts.

It’s not clear when Byrd-Bennett met Solomon, but it may have been in Detroit. Solomon wrote in an email, obtained from Detroit’s schools system, to Byrd-Bennett in August 2009, asking on the advice of a mutual acquaintance to set up a meeting with her there.

“I am going to be in Detroit to meet with some folks on Sept. 16th, and was hoping you might have some time that day to chat for a bit,” he wrote.

The Detroit schools hired Synesi in July 2010 to work with three elementary schools for $760,000, according to the contract. In November 2010, the district dropped two of those schools and added four, under a $3.195 million contract covering five schools.

The district appears to have issued a “request for qualifications,” but the later Synesi deal didn’t need to be competitively bid once the state of Michigan approved Synesi as an official “external service provider” for schools that won the grants. Illinois denied that approval to Synesi.

Carter, the Detroit school board member, has said that deal was never brought before the board for approval, nor were the others.

After Byrd-Bennett left Michigan, Detroit hired Synesi for another $160,000 to work with one of the same elementary schools. Detroit then gave PROACT a $77,500 contract to fill top district jobs.