Federal prosecutors say that the mastermind of the contracting scandal that ousted Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett helped “lay the foundation” for her to take power so she’d be positioned to steer them lucrative contracts.
Gary Solomon, co-owner of The SUPES Academy, has pleaded guilty in the scheme and in a 65-page memo asked his sentencing judge for a maximum 18 months in prison, punting the blame to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second schools chief.
In a blistering response released Monday night, Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church accused Solomon of “glossing over the significance of his corruption” on the cash-strapped school system as she held firm on the government’s recommendation of nine years behind bars when he is sentenced on March 24.
She called the lengthy claims his lawyers made, including that Byrd-Bennett proposed a bribe arrangement and repeatedly lied to the feds, “proof of his failure to fully accept responsibility for his conduct.”
“These claims are diversions, efforts to deflect the court’s attention from the breadth of his corruption and the extent to which he was the direct beneficiary,” Church said. “His was a calculated corruption that lasted for years and earned him millions of dollars. Solomon must be held accountable.”
Unlike Byrd-Bennett, who didn’t see a dime from promised kickbacks, Solomon, 48, pocketed more than $5 million from the principal training firm behind the scandal.
Church laid out in a detailed 14-page narrative submitted on U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon’s last day in office how Solomon set actions in motion that led to the awarding of about $23 million in no-bid deals from CPS to his education consulting companies.
“Without anyone else at CPS or in the City of Chicago knowing of his agreement to pay Byrd-Bennett kickbacks from the contracts awarded to SUPES,” Church wrote, “Solomon was working behind the scenes to help steer her into a more powerful position with CPS. It was to his benefit and his bottom line that Byrd-Bennett seized the helm from (her predecessor Jean-Claude) Brizard, and he worked to make it happen.”
“Solomon saw an opportunity” in July 2012 after he learned that Brizard wanted to leave CPS, Church wrote. He shared that tidbit with Beth Swanson, then Emanuel’s education deputy, emailing that “JC knows he is a dead man walking.”
“Will go without an issue?” Swanson asked of Brizard in June. Solomon assured her, “We discussed safe landing options for JC’s fam.”
In mid-July, he pushed Byrd-Bennett, who’d been CPS’ chief education officer for about two months: “She is all in with you, she said. Will do whatever you need her to do.”
“She just sees that the ship is sinking fast and she wants to help. She actually brought up an increased role,” he wrote.
By July 24, months before the mayor announced her promotion, Solomon applauded Byrd-Bennett: “Congrats Madam CEO!!!”
Reached by telephone Tuesday, Brizard confirmed he knew that summer he wouldn’t last long at CPS but said he never used the words “dead man walking.” He said the emails confirmed his suspicions.
“She and Gary were actively looking to undermine,” he said. “Now I know why, they wanted that contract. I was not biting.”
Asked whether Solomon’s lobbying affected the decision to elevate Byrd-Bennett, mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said, “of course not, as we said almost two years ago.”
Swanson did not respond to messages seeking an interview. She told the Sun-Times in 2015 that Solomon was a “serial networker who emailed constantly.”
Attorneys for Solomon and for Byrd-Bennett did not comment.
Solomon is the last of three convicted in the plot to steer no-bid deals from CPS to himself and business partner Thomas Vranas, with help from their former employee, Byrd-Bennett. After setting a trial date, Solomon pleaded guilty last October to one count of honest services wire fraud and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Byrd-Bennett, 67, faces closer to seven years in prison when she and Vranas are sentenced next month.