Barbara Byrd-Bennett punched her ticket to federal prison the same day she became the head of the Chicago Public Schools.
The Chicago Board of Education confirmed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second schools chief late in 2012. The same day, it approved a $2 million no-bid consulting contract to the SUPES Academy at her behest.
When it was done, her scam had already succeeded.
A federal judge sentenced Byrd-Bennett, 67, a week ago to four and a half years in prison for steering that contract and others worth a combined $23 million to SUPES and a sister company, Synesi Associates, in exchange for what she hoped would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
“It’s distressing that Chicago has not — nor seems to be able to — shed its image of public corruption,” U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang said as he sentenced Byrd-Bennett.
While Byrd-Bennett’s sentencing wrapped up yet another corrupt chapter in Chicago history, her scheme was “unique nationally,” former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer says.
Rather than turning corrupt after arriving at CPS, prosecutors portrayed Byrd-Bennett as a knowing accomplice to two crooked businessmen who used her to infiltrate Chicago’s school district and line their pockets. As they described it, Byrd-Bennett’s ascent to the top of CPS “was a necessary component for this scheme to work,” says Cramer, managing director in Chicago of Berkeley Research Group.
“It’s a high bar in Illinois to really do something unique, corruption-wise,” Cramer says. “It seems like Ms. Byrd-Bennett has really reached new territory.”
Byrd-Bennett came to Chicago early in Emanuel’s tenure as a nationally recognized educator. Even as she faced sentencing, former colleagues were writing letters to Chang describing her as a “role model” who “was working day and night on behalf of children and families” and “transformed the lives of children across the city.”
But even Byrd-Bennett’s attorneys acknowledged in court papers she “came to Chicago with and for SUPES and always, including throughout her time as CEO of CPS, planned to return to SUPES. … Barbara never wanted to cut the cord with SUPES and especially with Gary Solomon.”
Solomon owned the SUPES and Synesi education consulting firms with Thomas Vranas, his former student at Niles West High School in Skokie.
Prosecutors said Solomon masterminded the scheme. “Solomon was working behind the scenes to help steer [Byrd-Bennett] into a more powerful position within CPS,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church wrote in a court filing. “It was to his benefit and his bottom line that Byrd-Bennett seized the helm.”
Byrd-Bennett’s lawyer wouldn’t comment.
Solomon’s attorney, Anthony Masciopinto, disputes that Solomon made the first move to install Byrd-Bennett.
“The underlying premise that Barbara Byrd-Bennett was installed by the defendants to perpetuate the fraud is not accurate,” Masciopinto says. “The initiation came from CPS and the city because they believed she could provide real value.”
Still, Masciopinto says, “There’s no doubt he was interested in that prospect.”
Church noted in court filings that Solomon seized on the floundering tenure of Byrd-Bennett’s predecessor, describing Jean-Claude Brizard in July 2012 emails to a mayoral aide as a “dead man walking.”
Byrd-Bennett had arrived at CPS during the 2011-12 school year as a leadership coach. By spring 2012, Solomon had helped arrange for Byrd-Bennett to get a short-term contract to replace the woman she mentored. He later advised her to negotiate bringing in her own deputy to oversee Synesi’s CPS contracts.
After raising doubts about Brizard with Swanson, Solomon told her in July 2012 emails that Byrd-Bennett was “all in” and saw “the ship is sinking fast and she wants to help.”
Just 10 days later, Solomon applauded Byrd-Bennett an email that read, “Congrats Madam CEO!!” That title wouldn’t be officially bestowed on her for another three months.
On Oct. 24, 2012, when the Board of Ed. unanimously voted to approve making Byrd-Bennett schools chief at $250,000 a year, it also unanimously approved a $2.09 million contract with SUPES to train principals and their bosses.
Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas had spent that summer drafting a proposal for that contract. During that time, when Byrd-Bennett was still on a short-term CPS contract, she emailed top CPS officials with one of several public protestations she wasn’t beholden to her former employer.
“For the record and so no one is blind-sided and my integrity preserved, I need you to know and to instant [sic] that prior to accepting my current position, I formally resigned my previous relationship with SUPES Academy,” she wrote in September 2012. “I hope you will make this clear to your direct reports. The insinuations are being [sic] more intolerable.”
But as the case against her later revealed, she had worked out a deal with Solomon and Vranas earlier in 2012 to collect up to 10 percent of every CPS contract she sent their way. And Vranas had set up accounts where he would stash her money — which she hoped would benefit her twin grandsons.
“It is our assumption,” Solomon wrote to her in December 2012, “that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES/Synesi. If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.”
Once CEO, Byrd-Bennett put her new deputy Tracy Martin, who had been a SUPES consultant, in charge of pushing a deal through the school board giving Synesi federally funded “school improvement” work with CPS. That ultimately was blocked when state officials said Synesi wasn’t qualified.
Byrd-Bennett’s promised payback grew in 2013, when she pushed a $450,000 contract extension through the school board in January and laid the groundwork inside CPS for the three-year, $20.5 million deal with SUPES to train principals.
Steve Gering, a CPS official who oversaw principal training, questioned the proposed SUPES mega-deal. But, according to federal investigators, “Byrd-Bennett told him not to raise any more questions . . . and to let the process continue…Byrd-Bennett made it clear to him that she wanted SUPES to have all of the leadership development contracts with CPS.”
Byrd-Bennett told an aide weeks before the big SUPES vote, “I have no intentions of changing horses despite what procurement or at least what Steve had said.”
“Hee hee,” Solomon had emailed Byrd-Bennett earlier, apparently finding humor in Gering’s questions. “He does not get it, does he????”
When Chang sentenced Solomon in March to seven years in prison, the judge said, “Mr. Gering pushed back,” and Byrd-Bennett, “in effect, fired him.”
Regarding the $2 million deal, the judge said Byrd-Bennett planned all along to “push it through.
“That’s the inside joke,” said Chang.