Ex-DPS official ‘fraudulently steered’ $40M book deal, feds say
A former Detroit Public Schools administrator worked to “fraudulently steer” a $40 million contract from the district to a textbook publisher where she once worked, an FBI agent alleged in a federal court filing.
In an affidavit for a search warrant request filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit in March 2013, special agent Joseph Jensen said “there is probable cause to believe” Barbara Byrd-Bennett violated federal theft, fraud and conspiracy laws, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Byrd-Bennett, who was chief accountability officer for DPS from 2009 to 2011, served as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools from 2012 until June 2015, when she resigned during an investigation of alleged bid-rigging in that district.
Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty Oct. 13 to steering $23 million in CPS contracts for the SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, two education consulting companies she worked for before becoming CPS school chief.
According to the affidavit filed in Detroit, federal authorities also suspected that two aides helped Byrd-Bennett rig the bidding process in Detroit in favor of Boston-based Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the Sun-Times reported. The affidavit was for a search warrant to search Byrd-Bennett’s AOL email account.
No one has been charged in connection with the investigation of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt deal. The Sun-Times reported last week that federal investigators were looking into the 2009 deal.
In a statement, DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the district began an internal inquiry into the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt deal four years ago.
“Detroit Public Schools takes seriously any allegations of misconduct against its employees and/or vendors,” Zdrodowski said. “As with any matter where there are allegations of misconduct, DPS investigates internally and works cooperatively with the law enforcement agency handling such matters.
“As it relates to Ms. Byrd-Bennett and the contract with HMH, the District initiated its internal investigation in 2011 and continues to work with law enforcement agencies in an ongoing investigation,” she said.
Former Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson was in office while Byrd-Bennett worked for DPS.
“The only thing that came up was that there was a question about whether there was a conflict of interest since she once worked for Houghton Mifflin, and them getting the $40 million contract,” he said.
“To my knowledge, nothing was revealed that there was any impropriety, but people did raise an eyebrow.”
He was asked if he was surprised at the latest in the federal investigation.
“I could see it coming, given what happened in Chicago,” Johnson said. “I will sit back and see if they come up with anything. If she received personal benefit from the contract, that would bring a whole different perspective to the circumstances.”