Former Chicago schools CEO pleads guilty in corruption case
A former Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday to one count of wire fraud in a case involving $2 million in kickbacks and bribes she agreed to accept in exchange for a lucrative contract.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, 66, resigned in June amid a federal probe into a $20.5 million no-bid contract for a principal training program the cash-strapped district had awarded to her previous employer, educational consulting firm SUPES Academy.
Federal Judge Edmond Chang accepted Byrd-Bennett's plea and set Jan. 27 as the next hearing in the case after her lawyers and prosecutors hammer out the details of her sentence. Prosecutors have already dropped 15 counts of mail fraud and four other counts of wire fraud.
Byrd-Bennett made no statements at the hearing other than answering "yes, your honor" when asked if she understood the charge and was pleading guilty of her own free will. She told reporters after the hearing that she was "terribly sorry."
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The former CEO agreed to cooperate against two co-defendants in the case - the head of SUPES and the head of related firm Synesi Associates - who are to be arraigned on Wednesday.
The district for the country's third-largest city has had five chief executives in four years and is making drastic spending cuts this year as it faces a potential $1.1 billion deficit.
A 43-page federal indictment made public last Thursday includes criminal charges against Byrd-Bennett and against SUPES and its owner Gary Solomon and related company Synesi Associates and its owner Thomas Vranas. The indictment involves more than $23 million in contracts.
Solomon and Vranas also face bribery and conspiracy charges.
In one of her alleged email exchanges, Byrd-Bennett wrote: "I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:"
Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Byrd-Bennett to head the district, which serves 400,000 students in 660 schools, in 2012, after the first teachers' strike in Chicago in 25 years. The SUPES contract began in 2013.
Byrd-Bennett has been ordered to surrender her passport and cannot travel outside of the country while she awaits sentencing. The maximum sentence is 20 years in prison, but would likely be reduced with her cooperation with prosecutors.
"To think that she would betray our trust - I'm just appalled," said Audrey Davis, a retired teacher, in the courthouse lobby.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Eric Beech)
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