CHICAGO – Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced to four and a half years in prison on Friday for steering millions in no-bid contracts to her previous employer, SUPES Academy, as part of a kickback scheme.
Byrd-Bennett, 67, pleaded guilty in 2015 to one count of wire fraud, and has worked with investigators since that time to bring down others involved with the scam. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang sentenced Byrd-Bennett to four and a half years in prison for her part in steering $23 million in contracts to SUPES, in exchange for hundreds of thousands in a promised “signing bonus” when she returned to the company after her time at the helm of CPS.
The Chicago Tribune reports:
The bonus was to be concealed in trust accounts set up in the names her twin grandsons — with the cash available to her once she left CPS.
A CPS committee set up to evaluate no-bid contracts initially balked at awarding SUPES a noncompetitive deal but later approved the plan, records show.
In pushing for the contracts, Byrd-Bennett admitted she lied to other CPS administrators, telling them she had no financial connection with the company. When one district official raised concerns about the no-bid deal, Byrd-Bennett effectively had him fired, according to court records.
Chang told the packed courtroom on Friday that Byrd-Bennett deserved significant prison time to send a message to other corrupt public officials and vendors, but noted her advanced age and numerous letters of support in sentencing her to much less time than the seven years sought by prosecutors.
“Oh, your honor, I wish I had magic words or a better explanation,” Byrd-Bennett said, reading from prepared notes.
“What I did was terribly wrong. … I’m ashamed and I’m sorry,” she said, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Prosecutors said the former CEO’s motive was “naked greed.”
That greed seemed especially obvious in emails between Byrd-Bennett and SUPES that were uncovered by investigators.
In one email, she wrote she needed to money because she had “tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
“How could anyone be so stupid to send emails that are so open, so brazen about exchanging money for official action?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church questioned.
Chang was also struck by the “casualness” of the corruption, the Tribune reports.
“The emails were even sprinkled with humor, of all things,” he said. “It sends a signal to the court that you and (SUPES co-founder Gary) Solomon didn’t think you were going to get caught.”
Solomon, the alleged mastermind behind the kickback scheme, has already been sentenced to 7 years in prison.
SUPES official Thomas Vranas was sentenced to prison on Friday, as well.
Vranas, who was described by Church as “the guy behind the scenes getting the work done,” received 18 months in prison.
The Detroit Free Press reports Byrd-Bennett was also suspected of fraud while working as the district’s chief academic and accountability officer between May 2009 and June 2011.
“A March 2013 FBI agent’s affidavit for a warrant to search Byrd-Bennett’s AOL e-mail account indicated there was ‘probable cause’ to believe Byrd-Bennett committed fraud, theft and conspiracy while she worked at DPS,” according to the news site.
“Byrd-Bennett received particular scrutiny for a $40-million book deal to DPS, in which federal authorities suspected she lied to the district about her relationship with the book publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and had a conflict of interest.
“The book company deposited more than $25,000 in Byrd-Bennett’s money market account in July 2009, three weeks before the request for proposal for the Detroit schools book order.”
Chang ordered Byrd-Bennett to report to prison on Aug. 28.