Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of wire fraud in connection to allegations she used her position at CPS to award lucrative no-bid contracts to her former employer in exchange for bribes and kickbacks.
Byrd-Bennett, who was criminally charged Thursday, appeared before Judge Edmond E. Chang at the Dirksen Federal Building and, in a written plea agreement, admitted she steered no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to two education consulting firms in exchange for cash kickbacks and a consulting job.
She was initially charged with five counts of wire fraud, but four of those counts were dismissed Tuesday.
"My message is for the children and the families of the children of the Chicago Public Schools and the incredible, dedicated educators we have. I am terribly sorry and I apologize to them," Byrd-Bennett said outside the courtroom, her voice cracking. "They deserved much more, much more than I gave to them. And I thank you very much."
Prosecutors agreed to request a reduction in her sentence in exchange for her continued cooperation in their investigation. She could face up to 7 1/2 years in prison -- below the 11 to 14 years called for under federal sentencing guidelines.
Her sentencing was postponed until cases against other defendants in the alleged bribe scheme are resolved, the judge said.
"Barbara has devoted her life to public education," her attorney Michael Scudder said in a statement. "She has done an enormous amount of good for an enormous number of children throughout her career. Barbara loves the children of Chicago, is terribly sorry for her conduct, and wants nothing more than for the District to move forward with its important mission in these challenging times."
A 23-count indictment alleges Byrd-Bennett, 66, 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.
"Today, Barbara Byrd-Bennett took responsibility for putting her own financial gain ahead of what was in the best interest of the children she pledged to serve," Kelley Quinn, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said in a statement. "This continues to be a matter for the courts. The Mayor and Chicago Public Schools' leadership will continue to focus on our students, teachers and principals so that we can continue the progress that is being made in classrooms across the City, and enact further safeguards to help prevent this type of abuse from happening again."
Fardon said during a press conference Thursday that Byrd-Bennett's attorney said she was cooperating with the investigation and intended to plead guilty to the charges.
Wilmette-based SUPES and Evanston-based Synesi are also charged in the indictment along with their former owners, Gary Solomon and Tom Vranas. They are scheduled to appear before Chang Wednesday, court documents show. Shelly Kulwin, an attorney for Gary Solomon, said Solomon "will not be pleading guilty."