Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett leaves court in 2015. Federal prosecutors have recommended that she receive a sentence of 7 1/2 years in prison for taking part in a kickback scheme.
‘s fall began in April 2015 when a pair of FBI agents investigating a kickback scheme at Chicago Public Schools knocked on her door.
Byrd-Bennett, a Harlem, N.Y.-raised former teacher handpicked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to steer the city’s district in the wake of a 2012 teachers strike, agreed to speak to the agents that day.
But federal prosecutors allege nearly everything she said was a lie.
On Friday, two years and 14 days after that first interview, Byrd-Bennett faces sentencing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse for her role in a bribery case that added an embarrassing chapter to the troubled history of CPS.
Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in October 2015 to steering more than $23 million in no-bid contracts to the SUPES Academy education consulting firm where she once worked in return for kickbacks, other perks and a promise of a lucrative job once her time as CPS CEO was over.
Prosecutors are seeking a prison sentence of nearly 7 1/2 years for the disgraced educator, more than double the 3 1/2 years in prison that her attorneys have asked U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang to consider.
Byrd-Bennett is scheduled to be sentenced hours after one of her co-conspirators, former education consultant Thomas Vranas. In a filing early this month, Vranas’ attorneys asked a judge to consider a sentence of three years of probation. Prosecutors will ask that Vranas instead serve a 39-month prison sentence.
Gary Solomon, whom prosecutors called the "mastermind" of the bribery scheme, was sentenced last month to seven years in prison. He has appealed his prison term. Solomon and Vranas, who co-owned SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, also entered guilty pleas.
Byrd-Bennett will learn her fate as CPS struggles to avert insolvency and awaits a ruling — also set to come down Friday afternoon in Cook County Chancery Court — on a lawsuit filed in an effort to wrest more money from the state.
Byrd-Bennett’s case has also deepened what officials and observers sometimes describe as a "trust deficit" that CPS faces with the public it serves.
"I think she’s a byproduct of a very flawed system," said Wendy Katten of the Raise Your Hand parent advocacy group, which has long pushed the city to dump its current mayor-appointed school board for an elected body.
Much of the case against Byrd-Bennett centered on emails sent between her and Solomon that seemed to make no effort to conceal the kickback scheme. In one message, Byrd-Bennett even implied she needed cash because she had "tuition to pay and casinos to visit," according to the charges.
Prosecutors say she hired her friends at CPS and exploited her knowledge of the district to enrich herself and secure college and wedding funds for her twin grandsons. Byrd-Bennett "expected to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars" when she went back to work for SUPES after leaving CPS. Solomon and Vranas received payments of more than $2.9 million, the government said.
Prosecutors said Byrd-Bennett eventually sought to cooperate with the government’s investigation. She provided what authorities described as "truthful information regarding other areas of interest" to the government and the school system’s inspector general and also met with law enforcement from outside the Northern District of Illinois.
She apologized after pleading guilty following a formal indictment that came three years nearly to the day after Emanuel described her as "the best and the brightest" when he tapped her to lead CPS.
Katten plans to be in court for Byrd-Bennett’s sentencing but doesn’t see an opportunity for much closure.
"Yes, an individual did a bad thing, but the Board of Education was negligent in their role and should’ve cut off that long before they did. It shouldn’t have taken a federal investigation to stop that," she said.
Chicago Tribune’s Jason Meisner contributed.