Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was charged criminally today with accepting bribes and kickbacks in connection with the $20 million no-bid contract she helped give to SUPES Academy in 2013.
Federal prosecutors say Byrd-Bennett, 66, steered contracts to SUPES and a related company, Synesi Associates, in exchange for kickbacks that were funneled into “college fund” accounts in the names of two relatives, who appear to be her two grandsons.
In addition, prosecutors say, she expected to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars after leaving CPS and signing on as a consultant to the companies — the money would be disguised as a “signing bonus.” Byrd-Bennett had worked for SUPES before getting hired in Chicago, first as a consultant and then as chief education officer.
Byrd-Bennett stepped down from her CEO post soon after authorities began subpoenaing district records in connection to the case in April. Even so, the indictment is a blow to the beleaguered school district and to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who tapped her for CEO after his first appointee, Jean Claude Brizard, resigned in the wake of the 2012 teachers strike.
SUPES’ co-owners, Tom Vranas and Gary Solomon, were also named in the 23-count indictment.
“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, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in a statement. “School officials and city vendors who abuse the public trust will be held accountable.”
Prosecutors have scheduled a press conference on the indictment for 2 p.m. today.
The federal corruption investigation was prompted by a Catalyst investigation in July 2013 that detailed Byrd-Bennett’s connection with the for-profit, Wilmette-based SUPES Academy. The Board of Education voted for the no-bid contract in June of that year.
The CPS inspector general, Nicholas Schuler, began investigating Byrd-Bennett and the controversial SUPES contract soon after the initial report by Catalyst. The inspector general eventually passed the case to federal authorities.
The indictment shows that Byrd-Bennett and SUPES’ owners were conspiring about how to steer business toward the company within a month of her hiring at CPS.
In an email sent in April 2012, Solomon told her that when “this stint at CPS is done and you are ready retire, we have your spot waiting for you…. In the meantime, if we can figure a way to do deep principal PD at CPS, I can find a good home for [friends] and others, and make sure principals in CPS get kick-ass training with-kick ass coaching.”
Byrd-Bennett temporarily stepped down from her position as CEO of schools in April, just days after federal authorities began subpoenaing the district for records connected to SUPES. She made the resignation permanent a month later. Board Member Jesse Ruiz then took over, serving as acting CEO for three months. Emanuel named a permanent successor, his chief of staff, Forrest Claypool, as CEO in July.
City and district officials did not immediately comment on the indictment early Thursday afternoon.
In a statement, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the charges are “unfortunate and mark a sad day for the leadership of our district. While we wish Mrs. Byrd-Bennett well in her legal battles, the [CTU] remains fully and unequivocally committed to securing a fair contract for our members and ensuring their ability to properly serve the public school students and families in the city of Chicago.”
This story will be updated as more information develops.