Thomas Vranas asked a judge Thursday to sentence him to probation for his role in a bribery scandal that enmeshed the Chicago Public Schools and cost former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett her job and led to her corruption conviction.
Even though his former business partner, Gary Solomon, has already been hit with a seven-year prison sentence — and Byrd-Bennett faces her own lengthy stay behind bars — Vranas’ attorney claims he was basically taken along for a ride.
In a 73-page sentencing memo filed in federal court Thursday, Vranas lawyer Jacqueline Jacobson said three years of probation would be a sufficient punishment for “the least culpable of the three.” She also predicted federal prosecutors would suggest he get 39 months.
Jacobson said Vranas, 36, wasn’t immediately told about the corrupt kickback deal struck by Byrd-Bennett and Solomon, his former “dean and a mentor” at Niles West High School. And when ultimately confronted by the feds about the $23 million in no-bid deals CPS gave the SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, he was the only one of the three who “came completely clean” from the start.
“Tom was not the ‘driver’ of the scheme,” Jacobson wrote. “… Ultimately, Gary ‘corrupted’ Tom and Tom willingly participated in the offense instead of confronting Gary or leaving the SUPES Entities.”
And that “decision to participate in the scheme hatched by Gary and Barbara is a decision that will haunt him forever,” she wrote.
The feds have said Byrd-Bennett, 67, initially “lied about just about everything” before cooperating. They also said Solomon, 49, was less than honest. Solomon didn’t plead guilty until a year after their October 2015 indictment.
Vranas pleaded guilty a year ago to a single count of federal program bribery and is set to be sentenced on April 28 — the same day as Byrd-Bennett. Federal prosecutors are expected to recommend her sentence Friday, though they’ve previously said they would suggest roughly seven and a half years for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former schools chief. They said Byrd-Bennett, despite initially lying, cooperated fully in the end, and never actually saw any kickback money promised to her in a series of detailed emails exchanged among the three.
She planned to use those kickbacks — up to 10 percent of the principal-training business and school improvement contracts she could steer their way in 2012 and 2013 — to help pay for college for her young twin grandsons.
“Everyone sucks and is greedy,” read one of Vranas’ messages to Solomon in response to Byrd-Bennett’s demands.
Once confronted by CPS’ inspector general who initiated the investigation in 2013, Vranas tried — with Solomon’s blessing — to delete “bad emails” to conceal their pact with the schools chief.
In his bid for mercy, Vranas, the son of a CPS special education teacher, also said he put aside his profits from owning a third of the companies so he’d be able to pay CPS back more than his share of $254,000 in restitution. He wrangled 131 letters written to the judge on his behalf from relatives and colleagues, many of which argued that he never dodged responsibility for his role in the scheme. And while the charges against him cost him a “beloved volunteer position performing magic tricks for hospitalized children,” Vranas also secured part-time volunteer work helping at-risk youth at St. Sabina Church that he says probation would allow him to continue.