Jason Meisner and Juan Perez Jr., Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2015
Barbara Byrd-Bennett had been the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools less than two months when the man who helped persuade the Emanuel administration to give her the job sent an email allegedly laying out the heart of a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme.
In the December 2012 email, Gary Solomon, the owner of SUPES Academy and a consultant with long ties to the Emanuel administration, assured Byrd-Bennett that trust accounts had been set up in the names of two of her young relatives, each funded with tens of thousands of dollars, federal prosecutors alleged. The cash would be hers once she stepped down from her public post and rejoined his firm.
“It is our assumption that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES,” Solomon wrote, according to prosecutors. “If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.”
The secret bonus was just one part of a massive scheme outlined in a criminal indictment Thursday charging Byrd-Bennett, 66, with steering no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to SUPES in return for promises of up to $2.3 million in kickbacks, other perks and a job.
At a news conference outlining the indictment Thursday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon revealed that Byrd-Bennett is cooperating with investigators and plans to plead guilty to the charges and testify if necessary.
Fardon referred to the motive in the case as flat-out “greed,” calling Byrd-Bennett “a public official who compromised her integrity . . . by looking to line her own pockets.”
All three individual defendants and both corporations face multiple charges of mail and wire fraud. Solomon and Vranas also face counts of bribery of a government official and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. They will be arraigned at a later date before U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang and released on their own recognizance, records show.
Much of the indictment centers on emails sent between Solomon and Byrd-Bennett that seem to make no effort to conceal the alleged kickback scheme. In one message, which she finished with a smiley-face emoticon, Byrd-Bennett implied she needed cash because she had “tuition to pay and casinos to visit,” according to the charges.
“To literally set forth how the payments are going to be made going forward is strikingly inept,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the Chicago security firm Kroll.
The indictment alleged that Solomon and Vranas planned to deposit a combined $254,000 in the financial accounts of two relatives of Byrd-Bennett’s–identified by sources as grandsons–as the “signing bonus” for her help in obtaining the contracts.
“They need a college fund,” the charges quoted Solomon as writing in one email.