Former Chicago Schools CEO To Plead Guilty to Corruption Charges

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CHICAGO – The former chief executive of Chicago Public Schools was indicted Thursday on federal corruption charges tied to no-bid contracts worth $23 million.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett is cooperating with the federal investigation and plans to plead guilty.

The federal government charged that Byrd-Bennett used her position as chief executive officer of the Chicago district to award the lucrative contracts to her former employers, The Supes Academy LC and Synesi Associates LLC.

In exchange, Byrd-Bennett, 66, expected “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks,” said Zachary Fardon, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, at a press conference discussing the charges.

The two firms, which are based in the Chicago suburbs and specialize in training school administrators and principals, have also been charged along with their former owners.

The 23-count indictment is based in part on email exchanges between the former CEO and the heads of the two firms that seem to refer to various kickbacks.

“These emails reflect greed; they reflect a public official who compromised her integrity by … looking to line her own pockets,” Fardon said at the press conference. “I find it particularly troubling when that public corruption impacts a school.”

Byrd-Bennett used her position as CEO of the Chicago schools to lobby for Supes and Synesi, and to expand a principal training program for their benefit, according to the charges. She also falsely represented to Chicago Board of Education officials that she received no financial benefit from the companies.

“In reality, Byrd-Bennett maintained an interest in Supes and Synesi through a secret consulting agreement, which promised to pay her a percentage of the gross proceeds from the contracts she helped to procure,” the indictment says.

The indictments charge that Byrd-Bennett was to get 10% of the value of the contracts as well as future employment, a signing bonus, trust accounts set up for two of her relatives, and received meals, tickets to sports events and other perks, Fardon said.

“In exchange Barbara Byrd-Bennett put her thumb on the contract award process at CPS,” Fardon said. The indictments say Byrd-Bennett deliberately misled other public officials at CPS and the Board of Education about whether she had any financial stake in the firms that won the contracts.

The indictment does not allege that any actual money changed hands.

Byrd-Bennett had worked for the two firms as a consultant before she joined CPS in 2012.

She left CPS in June 2014, a month after she was placed on a leave of absence after it was disclosed that federal authorities were probing the contracts.

In addition to the bribery and conspiracy charges, the indictment includes 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud.

“We do have a long and sad history of public corruption in this state,” Fardon told reporters. “On the happy side of that equation … our agencies are dogged and passionate.”

"I am saddened and disappointed to learn about the criminal activity that led to today's indictment of Barbara Byrd-Bennett,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who hired her, said in a statement after Thursday’s indictment. “Our students, parents, teachers and principals deserve better."

The indictment adds to the negative headlines the junk-bond rated school district faces as it is pressing for nearly $500 million in state pension help to balance its books while warning of steep layoffs if lawmakers don’t cooperate.

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