Corruption at the top of Chicago Public Schools
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett winks before a speech at the Union League Club on Nov. 2, 2012. Prosecutors announced Oct. 8, 2015, that she is expected to plead guilty to a bribery scheme. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Where was the Chicago Board of Education?
How did a north suburban consulting company land a $20.5 million no-bid contract to train principals for the Chicago Public Schools?
That's been an open question since April, when CPS revealed it had been served with federal subpoenas for documents related to its dealings with Wilmette-based SUPES Academy.
Prosecutors laid out a narrative Thursday in a 23-count indictment against former CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and two SUPES officers, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas. It alleges an elaborate conspiracy to grease deals for SUPES with kickbacks for Byrd-Bennett.
Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant at SUPES before joining CPS in 2012. She resigned from CPS in May. She is expected to plead guilty, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said.
In return for steering no-bid contracts totaling more than $23 million to SUPES, Byrd-Bennett was promised hundreds of thousands of dollars and a consulting job at the company whenever her stint at CPS ended, prosecutors say.
The money was to be funneled through accounts set up in the names of family members — the emails described them with a wink as "college funds" — and paid out as a "signing bonus" when she rejoined the company. She also allegedly was rewarded with sports tickets, meals, air travel and other perks.
"When this stint at CPS is done and you are ready to ... retire, we have your spot waiting for you," Solomon wrote to Byrd-Bennett in an email that went on to suggest there could be jobs waiting for her friends, too, the feds say.
And in a later email, he wrote: "If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day. Regardless, it will be paid out on day one."
In another email, Byrd-Bennett allegedly affirmed her eagerness to secure funding for a SUPES principal training program by noting that "I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit."
Publicly, Byrd-Bennett and her former employers took pains to conceal the relationship, according to the indictment.
SUPES drew up a fake letter to Byrd-Bennett, terminating her consulting contract with the company, and drew up a secret agreement that guaranteed her a percentage of proceeds from contracts she helped secure with CPS.
Byrd-Bennett signed a CPS ethics statement that didn't disclose her stake in SUPES or report the perks she received from the company. She represented to the school board that she'd ended her relationship with the company before taking the job at CPS and that she did not benefit from SUPES work for CPS.
When the school board's inspector general asked to review SUPES emails, prosecutors say, Solomon told Byrd-Bennett that Vranas was going to use a computer program to delete them. He advised her to delete hers, too, according to the indictment.
The deal that triggered an investigation was the $20.5 million contract for a principal training program, awarded in June 2013. The CPS board, then led by President David Vitale, signed off unanimously on that contract with no public discussion.
Former CPS board member Andrea Zopp, who is now running for U.S. Senate, visited the Tribune Editorial Board in August. Asked about the SUPES contract, she said the board was aware Byrd-Bennett had ties with the company and it did not raise red flags.
"That was a plus, not a negative because she had experience with them," Zopp said. "So being an employee in and of itself would not raise a bell. To me it was (Byrd-Bennett saying), 'I work there. I know what they do is good. I did it.' Me, at the time, I had a lot of respect for her and what she had done so that was a plus."
No alarms? Really? It's clear from the indictment that Byrd-Bennett sought to improperly leverage her position — and to hide her deal with SUPES from the school board. That doesn't excuse board members for making it so easy.
This was one of the largest no-bid contracts in years, awarded to a company with ties to the schools' CEO, and not one of them tried to at least slow it down.
That lack of checks and balances should make Chicago taxpayers want to scream: Who's in charge?
Most of the board members who approved the contract are gone, replaced with a new slate of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's appointees.
We hope they're paying attention now. The 43-page indictment could be read as one long lesson in failed oversight of taxpayer money, though Fardon declined to characterize it that way. "We are not speaking to how there may or may not have been failure in the system," he said.
Fair enough. The U.S. attorney's job is to prosecute federal crimes.
It's school board members' job to ask questions, to say "Wait a minute …"
They didn't do it.
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