Mastermind of massive CPS kickback scheme gets 7 years in prison

Gary Solomon (left), co-owner of the principal training firm SUPES Academy, walks out of federal court after being sentenced to 84 months in prison on Friday. With him is one of his attorneys, Shelly Kulwin. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The mastermind of a massive kickback scandal that took down former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced to seven years in prison Friday.

Gary Solomon, 48, was the first person sent to prison in the scheme that was publicly revealed in April 2015 when subpoenas hit CPS. The investigation snared Byrd-Bennett, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second schools chief, but the feds say Solomon orchestrated her hiring to scam the district out of millions.

Solomon even applauded her ascension to the top of CPS — months before it was announced — in one of his many emails to Byrd-Bennett that read, “Congrats Madam CEO!!”

While Byrd-Bennett destroyed her career for virtually no money, prosecutors say Solomon pocketed more than $5 million from the company at the heart of the scandal.

U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang denounced the breach of trust involving education officials as worse than if it had involved infrastructure projects or other routine government business. Solomon joked in emails with the others about their scheme, laughing at the one CPS employee who lost his job after raising questions about the deals which were awarded during tough financial times for the school system.

“You know more than most there is no public mission more important than educating children,” Chang said to Solomon during Friday’s sentencing hearing, calling public corruption “a blight on our city.”

“What happened here was greed, not out of need,” Chang said before announcing the sentence.

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Solomon stood motionless. His only visible emotion during the 2 1/2 hour hearing emerged as he thanked his family for their “undying support” and apologized for shaming them.

“Your honor, I made a horrible decision that, looking back, I wish I could undo,” said the married father of three.

Amid profuse apologies, Solomon said he took pride in his long career in education that started at the Niles Township School District: “I’m embarrassed and humiliated and sad that a bad decision took away from that important work.”

Prosecutors petitioned Chang for a nine-year prison sentence for the “mastermind” of the kickback scheme that lasted more than a year.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett apologized to students, parents and educators in a statement to the media as she exited federal court after pleading guilty in October 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

“The sentence has to speak to other people who try to get contracts with the Chicago Public Schools,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church said. “The fact is, they were taking money for the defendant’s program from other programs to line the defendant’s pockets.”

“In the context of teacher strikes and school closings, the defendant and Byrd-Bennett were thinking about how to get money for themselves,” Church said.

Solomon must report to prison on July 11. He’s already paid his share of a combined $254,000 in restitution as part of the criminal case. He and his co-defendants also face a $65 million lawsuit filed by CPS.

Last year, Solomon pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud. His lawyers asked Chang for 18 months tops in prison, denying that Solomon masterminded the scheme. Instead, they’ve blamed Byrd-Bennett, arguing that she lied to the feds to save her own skin before their indictment. They also contended that his sentence should be lower than the public official’s — and Byrd-Bennett will face about 7 1/2 years on April 28.

But Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty immediately after their October 2015 indictment. And while prosecutors acknowledged Byrd-Bennett initially lied, Church said the “fact that she came in and cooperated fully against the other two defendants allowed us to prosecute this case efficiently.”

Gary Solomon (right), co-owner of the principal training firm SUPES Academy, walks out of federal court after being sentenced to 84 months in prison on Friday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The former schools CEO planned to use kickbacks  — up to 10 percent of the principal-training business and school improvement contracts she was able to steer Solomon’s way — to help pay for college for her young twin grandsons.

“I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:” she wrote in the most notorious of the hundreds of emails later revealed by the feds. But she never actually saw any money promised her as a “signing bonus” the day she left CPS to return to Solomon’s employ.

Though a $20.5 million contract to SUPES in 2013 attracted the attention of CPS’ inspector general, Solomon has denied it was the result of a quid pro quo. He instead admitted to bribing Byrd-Bennett for a $2 million deal in 2012.

Chang ultimately counted the proceeds of all three contracts as ill-gotten gains, bumping Solomon’s sentencing range higher than if the big contract were considered a separate, clean deal, as his attorneys tried to argue.

“Her return to SUPES wasn’t in exchange for the $20 million contract,” Anthony Masciopinto, one of Solomon’s attorneys, said Friday. Rather, he said, it was for her “starpower.”

Chang dismissed the idea of any “bonus” calling it “a disguise for a bribe payment.”

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