Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was criminally charged Thursday for allegedly using her position to award lucrative no-bid contracts to her former employer in exchange for bribes and kickbacks, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announced.
A 23-count indictment alleges Byrd-Bennett steered no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to the SUPES Academy, a principal-and-administrator training company that once employed her, in exchange for an expectation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
The indictment alleges the companies agreed to conceal the kickback money by funneling it into accounts set up in the names of two of Byrd-Bennett's relatives. An agreement called for the funds to be paid to Byrd-Bennett in the form of a "signing bonus" after her employment with CPS ended and the companies re-hired her as a consultant, officials said.
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The indictment also claims the ex-CPS CEO received numerous other benefits including meals, an airplane ticket and seats at basketball and baseball games.
Byrd-Bennett, 66, was charged with 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud.
Fardon said during a press conference Thursday that Byrd-Bennett's attorney said she is cooperating with the investigation and intends to plead guilty to the charges. Her attorney has not responded to NBC Chicago's request for comment.
Wilmette-based SUPES and Evanston-based Synesi are also charged in the indictment along with their former owners, Gary Solomon and Tom Vranas.
According to the indictment, an email discussion between Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas was obtained, where Solomon told Byrd-Bennett in part, "Like we have discussed, we have created accounts that, upon withdrawal, we will pay down the taxes and distribute. You can distribute to [Relative A and Relative B] as you deem appropriate. It is our assumption that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES/Synesi. 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."
The indictment does not allege whether or not any money was paid into the two trust accounts, Fardon said, but it claims Solomon "represented" to Byrd-Bennett that $127,000 was going into each account.
"I think those emails reflect greed," Fardon said. "They reflect a public official who compromised her integrity and the integrity of her professional responsibility by looking to line her own pockets."
Solomon said in a statement through his attorney, Tony Masciopinto, that he acknolwedged "certain errors in judgment that he (as well as others) made in the contract letting process" and he "regrets his own errors" but he's "disappointed in the government's charges."
“Graft and corruption in our city’s public school system tears at the fabric of a vital resource for the children of Chicago,” Fardon said in a statement. “School officials and city vendors who abuse the public trust will be held accountable.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in statement that he was "disappointed to learn about the criminal activity."
"Our students, parents, teachers and principals deserve better," he said.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis echoed that sentiment in a statement saying the "circumstances surrounding the indictment of the former CEO are unfortunate and mark a sad day for the leadership of our district."
Byrd-Bennett resigned earlier this year amid the federal probe of the no-bid principal training contract with her former employer. The Chicago Board of Education has since suspended its agreement with the training company.
Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant for SUPES and Synesi before moving to CPS. Emanuel appointed Byrd-Bennett to CEO of CPS in 2012, shortly after a teachers strike.
Check back for details on this developing story.