School & District Management

Former Chicago Schools CEO to Plead Guilty to Bribery Charges, Feds Say

By Corey Mitchell — October 13, 2015 3 min read
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former Chicago schools CEO, is expected to plead guilty to federal charges.
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Former Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is expected to plead guilty to federal criminal charges that allege she used her power as head of the nation’s third-largest school district to steer $23 million in no-bid contracts to her former employers.

The 23-count indictment from the U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Byrd-Bennett awarded the deals to The SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, companies that trained superintendents, principals, and other school administrators, in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, kickbacks, and other compensation.

Byrd-Bennett, along with SUPES Academy co-owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, each face multiple counts of mail and wire fraud.

“Graft and corruption in our city’s public school system tears at the fabric of a vital resource for the children of Chicago,” Zachary T. Fardon, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in a statement.

Byrd-Bennett will plead guilty to the charges in the indictment, said her lawyer, Michael Scudder.

The federal probe of the alleged scheme found no evidence that money changed hands while Byrd-Bennett served as CEO. But the indictment does allege that the two companies agreed to conceal Byrd-Bennett’s kickback money by funneling it into accounts set up in the names of two of her relatives, and re-hire her as a consultant, with a “signing bonus,” after she left the 397,000-student Chicago school district.

The indictment also alleges that SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates provided Byrd-Bennett with perks such as meals, seats at basketball and baseball games, and an airline ticket.

According to the indictment, the Chicago Board of Education awarded SUPES Academy one contract worth nearly $2.1 million within two weeks of Byrd-Bennett’s appointment as CEO in late 2012.

The district extended the contract in 2013, awarding the company an additional $225,000. A few months later, SUPES Academy landed a $20.5 million, no-bid contract.

News of the indictment rocked Chicago schools’ leadership.

“The circumstances surrounding the indictment of the former CEO are unfortunate and mark a sad day for the leadership of our district,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said in a statement.

“I am saddened and disappointed to learn about the criminal activity that led to today’s indictment of Barbara Byrd-Bennett,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “Our students, parents, teachers and principals deserve better.”

An arraignment date in U.S. District Court has not yet been set for the trio. The indictment marks a fast fall for SUPES Academy and Byrd-Bennett, who previously served as CEO of Cleveland’s school district and the chief academic officer in Detroit.

Resignation Amid Probe

Byrd-Bennett used her experience as a school administrator as a consultant for SUPES and Synesi, before she left to serve as Chicago’s chief education adviser in May 2012. Emanuel appointed her as chief executive officer in the fall of that year.

According to its website, the SUPES Academy provided district leadership training programs, securing contracts with 14 school districts, one charter school network, two departments of education, as well as AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Soon after Chicago district officials announced last April that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed documents related to the contract, Byrd-Bennett took a paid leave of absence. She resigned weeks later under a cloud of controversy.

She faces 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud.

The indictment charges Solomon with 15 counts of mail fraud, five counts of wire fraud, two counts of bribery of a government official, and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Vranas, his business partner, faces 15 counts of mail fraud, four counts of wire fraud, two counts of bribery of a government official, and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Former Chicago Schools CEO Indicted in Federal Fraud Case

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