CHICAGO (CBS) — Admitting she was “terribly wrong” for arranging $2.3 million in kickbacks to steer a contract to her former employer while running the Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett blamed the “overwhelming” pressures of the job as she was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison on Friday.
Byrd-Bennett, 67, pleaded guilty in 2015 to one count of mail fraud, just days after she was indicted for steering more than $23 million in no-bid contracts from CPS to her former employer, SUPES Academy, in exchange for $2.3 million in kickbacks. However, Byrd-Bennett never pocketed any proceeds from the scheme.
At Friday’s sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang sentenced her to 54 months in prison. He also fined her $15,000 and ordered her to pay restitution. Byrd-Bennett must report to prison on Aug. 28, and Chang said he will recommend she serve her time in the Amderson prison in the Alderson federal prison in West Virginia.
Federal prosecutors had asked for a sentence of up about 7 ½ years in prison, while the defense asked for 3 ½ years.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Megan Church said Byrd-Bennett’s emails with SUPES co-owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas were damning evidence of “naked greed,” in seeking to profit from a “near-bankrupt school system.”
Chang said the “casualness” of Byrd-Bennett’s crime made it worse.
“The emails were even sprinkled with humor of all things,” he said. “It sends a signal you didn’t think you’d get caught.”
In one particularly damning email discussing the contract scheme, Byrd-Bennett wrote “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
“The leader of the Chicago Public Schools chose to rip off the school system,” Church said.
Sobbing through her 10-minute allocution, Byrd-Bennett said “We’re here because of my dishonesty in my relationship with SUPES.”
The former CPS leader said what she did was “terribly wrong,” and said she has no one to blame but herself for compromising her obligations to students, teachers, and schools.
“I pray to God to help me find a way to redeem myself,” she said.
Byrd-Bennett said the “overwhelming” pressures of the job led her to lean heavily on SUPES owner Gary Solomon. Specifically, she pointed to the 2013 decision to close 50 public schools. However, she said the school closings were the right thing to do.
As part of her plea agreement, Byrd-Bennett had agreed to cooperate against Solomon and Vranas.
Vranas was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday morning. Last month, Solomon was sentenced to 7 years in prison. Prosecutors had painted Solomon as the mastermind of the scheme.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appointed Byrd-Bennett as the head of CPS after her predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard, was ousted in the wake of a teachers strike, said Byrd-Bennett “betrayed the public trust.”
“She broke the law. She turned her back on the very children she was entrusted to serve, and the children of Chicago are owed much better than that. Today’s decision is a reminder that no one is above the law, and with justice now served the entire CPS community can continue to focus on building on the record academic success of Chicago students,” the mayor said in a statement Friday afternoon.
The Chicago Teachers Union also issued a statement about Byrd-Bennett’s sentence:
“Today’s sentencing of former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett joins the shuttering of 50 schools in predominantly Black and Latino communities, the cover-up in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the closure of city-run mental health clinics, and an ongoing email scandal on a list of embarrassments and transgressions Chicagoans have endured under the Rahm Emanuel administration.
“Byrd-Bennett’s tenure as the head of CPS, in addition to her and Emanuel’s destruction of dozens of school communities in 2013, cost the district $20 million in cronyism and privatization, which continues to this day. Six-figure salaries and administrative costs have doubled under current CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, while spending on instruction has plummeted.
“As Claypool spends millions on sick day audits of hardworking teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals, and violates CPS Office of Inspector General rules regarding district residency requirements, he is complicit in the same corrupt practices the district claims to be addressing in the wake of Byrd-Bennett’s prosecution. This hypocrisy and example of one set of guidelines for leadership, and another set for the rest of us, is why our union, parents and public education activists continue to lobby for an elected, representative school board.”