CHICAGO (AP) — A federal judge lamented the persistence of city corruption Friday as he sentenced the former head of Chicago Public Schools to 4 ½ years in prison for steering $23 million in no-bid city contracts to education firms for a cut of more than $2 million in kickbacks.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s brazenness in bilking a district buckling under major financial strain made her crime much worse, Judge Edmond Chang said at the sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
A tearful Byrd-Bennett apologized in court before learning her punishment, saying: “What I did was terribly wrong. … I’m ashamed and I’m sorry.”
The 67-year-old Byrd-Bennett and her co-schemers have further eroded public confidence in a city with a long history of corruption, Chang said. It was vital to impose a punishment that can deter other officials tempted to accept bribes and kickbacks, he said.
“It’s distressing that Chicago has not and seems to be unable to shed its image of public corruption,” he said.
The scheme, Chang added, had diverted money from students who relied on education to help them escape poverty and crime.
He cited emails to co-defendants where Byrd-Bennett expressed an eagerness to make money, writing in one: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.” Such “casualness” and “humor” about corruption suggested she never thought she’d be caught, the judge said.
Before being tapped to lead the Chicago district — the nation’s third largest with 400,000, mostly low-income students — Byrd-Bennett held top education jobs in Detroit, Cleveland and New York. As a young woman, she worked as a teacher in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, near where she was raised and later became a “superstar” in the world of education reform, prosecutor Megan Church told the court earlier Friday.
But she succumbed to “naked greed” and a sense of entitlement as she took the Chicago post in 2012, Church said.
“She thought she was owed something more for what she did in the past,” Church said. “And Chicago was the place to get it.”
Bennett faced a maximum 20 years behind bars. Prosecutors asked for 7 ½ years, in part because she had agreed to cooperate shortly after her arrest. The defense asked for a 3 ½-year sentence.
Chang said he also factored in Byrd-Bennett’s age and how she had revitalized schools in different cities over her 40-year career. And he noted what he described as her quiet acts of kindness, including helping to pay for the funerals of some students.
Co-defendants, SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, also pleaded guilty to related charges. Chang sentenced Solomon to seven years in prison last month; Vranas received an 18-month sentence earlier Friday.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired Byrd-Bennett five years ago, vowing to revitalize a school district criticized for low student performance. As CEO, Byrd-Bennett oversaw the shuttering of dozens of schools in a money-saving measure.
Byrd-Bennett said in court Friday that she had become overwhelmed as the head of CPS, recalling how parents yelled at her for closing their neighborhood schools and accused her of putting their kids in peril by forcing them to walk to new schools farther away.
When scrutiny of district contracts grew in 2013, Byrd-Bennett began deleting potentially incriminating emails, according to prosecutors. She resigned in June 2015, as word spread of an investigation.
In exchange for pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud in 2015, prosecutors agreed to drop 19 other counts of fraud charged in the original indictment.