Former CPS CEO Byrd-Bennett gets 4 1/2 years in prison

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced Friday to 4 1/2 years in prison  for her role in a contract-rigging scandal that rocked the Chicago Public Schools.

“I was the CEO, not Gary Solomon, not Tom Vranas,” Barbara Byrd-Bennett said of her co-defendants before she was sentenced. “I ought to be punished.”

Byrd-Bennett wept as she spoke before U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang.

Adam Collins, spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appointed Byrd-Bennett, said after she was sentenced: “Barbara betrayed the public trust. She broke the law. She turned her back on the very children she was entrusted to serve, and the children of Chicago are owed much better than that.”

Just hours before, Vranas was sentenced to 18 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang.

Vranas cried after Chang handed down his sentence, which also includes three years of supervised release after his prison term. He must surrender by Sept. 11.

Byrd-Bennett, 67; and Vranas, 36, were indicted a year-and-a-half ago in the bribery scheme with former Vranas business partner Solomon, who was sentenced last month to seven years in prison.

“B3,” as Mayor Rahm Emanuel once called his second schools chief was the last to be sentenced.

In sentencing Vranas, Chang noted the financial struggle that Chicago’s school system continues to face.

“I think you know every dollar expected to go to Ms. Byrd-Bennett is a dollar CPS could have used for itself,” the judge said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church gave Vranas credit for helping prosecutors build the rest of their case.

“When he came in, he was a breath of fresh air,” Church said, describing Vranas’ participation as “candid” and “forthcoming.”

But she also noted he was part of the scheme to use “clout to get contracts.”

Vranas apologized before hearing his sentence as two rows of his relatives looked on.

“Your honor, I apologize to the court to the government and to my family,” he said. “I also apologize to CPS, the students and the city of Chicago. What I did was wrong. I blame myself and no one else for my actions.”

Vranas also will be on the hook for some of the $254,000 in restitution to CPS.

It was two years ago that the FBI confronted Byrd-Bennett about the scheme, and, according to prosecutors, she “lied about just about everything.”

In an extraordinary chapter in Chicago’s long history of graft, federal authorities ultimately discovered that Solomon engineered Byrd-Bennett’s rise to the top of CPS, the nation’s third-largest school district, hoping she would steer millions to his companies. In return, he promised to pay her hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.

Not only did Byrd-Bennett oblige, but, in their substantial correspondence, she also authored a nine-word, emoji-punctuated email that secured her place in Chicago’s corruption hall of fame: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:.”

Byrd-Bennett never pocketed any money but pleaded guilty to wire fraud in October 2015. Vranas pleaded guilty to bribe conspiracy in April 2016. Solomon pleaded guilty to wire fraud last October.

After admitting her role in the scheme to the judge, Byrd-Bennett also gave a tearful apology to the schoolchildren of Chicago, and their families.

“They deserved much more,” she said, “much more than I gave to them.”

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