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CPS approves more legal spending for Byrd-Bennett aides

About a week before an indictment was filed against former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the school district quietly asked for and received another $150,000 to pay lawyers who are representing three of her close aides.

That brings the total authorized to the Schiff Hardin law firm to $400,000 so far from the district begging Springfield to close its $480 million budget gap, records show.

The spending extension did not appear on the public agenda in advance of the meeting Sept. 29. Instead it apparently was presented in closed session and voted on afterward. The state’s open meetings law permits but does not require the district to discuss such matters in closed executive session.

CPS would not say whether the added spending was tied to the announcement Thursday of a criminal indictment against Byrd-Bennett and the two owners of The SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, with whom she is alleged to have schemed.

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CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said CPS has so far paid Schiff Hardin about $220,000 for work done though the end of July, and expects to pay more since the investigation continues.

“CPS has a statutory obligation to cover the legal expenses of any employees as a result of their work within the scope of their employment,” he said.

The district, however, is not paying for the former federal prosecutor representing Byrd-Bennett.

CPS hired the white collar firm in April, approving spending up to $250,000 within about two weeks of federal subpoenas landing at district headquarters seeking records about Byrd-Bennett and three of her aides, Sherry Ulery, Rosemary Herpel and Tracy Martin.

Ulery and Herpel, longtime Byrd-Bennett associates, also were called before a grand jury.

Sometime in May, according to invoices released under the Freedom of Information Act, the district also agreed to pay for legal counsel for former employee Steve Gering, who was in charge of recruiting and developing principals, whom investigators wanted to interview.

The feds also wanted documents about meals, honoraria and gifts concerning Solomon and Vranas, and their three north suburban companies SUPES, Synesi and an educator search firm called PROACT Search.

McCaffrey called the original $250,000 an estimate as is the extra $150,000. He said CPS can’t estimate the final cost of these legal services.

Two firm partners and former federal prosecutors, Ron Safer and Matt Crowl, agreed to represent the Byrd-Bennett aides and another former official for $295 an hour, a steep discount from the $905 normally billed by Safer and $830 by Crowl.

Safer has declined to comment, saying only that the rate reflects what the firm typically charges governmental entities.

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