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Ex-Chicago Public Schools CEO to plead guilty in corruption

Michael Tarm
Associated Press

Chicago — Chicago’s top federal prosecutor says the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools plans to plead guilty in a corruption case linked to a $20 million no-bid contract.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said Thursday that he was authorized by an attorney for Barbara Byrd-Bennett to announce her plans to plead guilty. Fardon didn’t specify what charges would be involved.

His office announced earlier Thursday that Byrd-Bennett had been indicted on several counts of mail fraud and wire fraud following an investigation into a no-bid contract with SUPES Academy, where she once worked as a consultant.

Byrd-Bennett, who once served as chief academic and accountability auditor for Detroit Public Schools, stepped down as Chicago’s top school official earlier this year.

The indictment againstByrd-Bennett comes about four months after she resigned as leader of the nation’s third-largest school district. Appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012, she stepped down amid a federal investigation into a contract between the district and SUPES Academy, a training academy where she once worked as a consultant.

Byrd-Bennett, 66, is charged with several counts of mail and wire fraud that each carry maximum 20-year prison sentences. Phone and email messages seeking comment from Byrd-Bennett and the mayor’s office weren’t immediately returned; a school district spokeswoman didn’t immediately have comment.

SUPES Academy and a related company, Synesi Associates LLC, are also charged, as are their owners, Gary Soloman and Thomas Vranas. Both men are charged with bribery and conspiracy to defraud, along with mail and wire fraud.

The two men are accused of placing money into the accounts of two of Byrd-Bennett’s relatives, referred to as Relatives A and B in the indictment, that at one point each had $127,000. The indictment also alleges that Solomon and Vranas promised Byrd-Bennett a job after she left CPS, and that part of the agreed-to bribes would be disguised as a lucrative signing bonus.

The indictment alleges that one email from Solomon to Byrd-Bennett said, “If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.” In another email, he allegedly said: “When this stint at CPS is done and you are ready to re re re retire, we have your spot waiting for you.”

In two emails between Solomon and Vranas, the men appear to discuss payments to Byrd-Bennett. Vranas is quoted in one email as saying, “Everyone sucks and is greedy.”

The indictment also alleges that Byrd-Bennett agreed to accept bribes and kickbacks, including tickets to sports events.

Soloman’s attorney released a statement saying Soloman has cooperated in the investigation and stands behind his companies’ training and services. The statement says Solomon has acknowledged “certain errors” in judgment, but that he’s disappointed he was charged.

Vranas and his attorney didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

The indictment comes at a critical time for Chicago Public Schools and its roughly 400,000 students. The district is facing a severe budget shortfall and a severely underfunded pension system. Contract negotiations with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union also have been tense; teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years during the last round of negotiations.

Byrd-Bennett, a longtime educator from Solon, Ohio, took a paid leave of absence in April following reports that federal investigators were looking into a $20 million no-bid contract with SUPES Academy. The academy, which trains principals and administrators, turned over records to investigators, who also asked for documents from Byrd-Bennett and other employees.

CPS later suspended its contract with SUPES and confirmed it had been subpoenaed.

A federal investigation followed a tough re-election bid for Emanuel, who spent much of his time on the campaign trail defending his decision to close numerous schools and to choose Byrd-Bennett to lead the district of about 400,000 students. Her annual salary was $250,000.

Among the most scrutinized moves was a 2013 push to close dozens of neighborhood schools. During the campaign, Emanuel said it was a tough, but necessary decision to improve school achievement, and that he was proud of his choice of Byrd-Bennett.

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