FOX 32's Craig Wall contributed to this report.
CHICAGO (AP) — An hour after pleading guilty to her role in a scheme to steer $23 million in no-bid contracts to education firms for $2.3 million in bribes and kickbacks, the former head of Chicago Public Schools apologized Tuesday to students, parents and employees, saying they deserved "much more than I gave to them."
As part of a plea deal, prosecutors recommended that Barbara Byrd-Bennett serve 7½ years behind bars for one count of fraud. In exchange for pleading guilty to that one count, prosecutors said they will drop the 19 other fraud counts, each of which carried a maximum 20-year term.
Addressing reporters after the arraignment, the 66-year-old's voice quivered as she gave her brief message for the city's 400,000 schoolchildren, their parents and her former co-workers.
"I am terribly sorry and I apologize to them," Byrd said solemnly. "They deserved much more — much more than I gave to them."
Neither she nor her attorney took any questions Tuesday. Byrd-Bennett stepped down from the third-largest school district in the U.S. in June after word spread about a federal investigation into a contract between the district and SUPES Academy, a training academy where she once worked.
Prosecutors allege the scheme started in 2012 — the year Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired the Solon, Ohio, woman to become the district's CEO. The indictment alleged that the owners of the two education service and training firms offered her a job and a hefty one-time payment — disguised as a lucrative signing bonus — once she left CPS.
The city is looking for "further safeguards to help prevent this type of abuse from happening again," Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement later Tuesday. Though Emanuel initially said his office wasn't involved in the contracts at issue, he said Monday that some of his staffers had asked "hard questions" before the school board approved the contracts. He added that he was never directly involved.
"When a mayor gets involved in contracts, you have a problem," he said. "I clearly don't do that, because I think that's the wrong thing to do."
The indictment alleges Byrd-Bennett expected to receive kickbacks worth 10 percent of the value of the contracts, or about $2.3 million. It's unclear how much money was ever set aside, though the indictment says trust accounts tied to two relatives were set up to hide the money.
In an email to one of the executives sent Sept. 10, 2012, Byrd-Bennett wrote about her apparent eagerness to make money: "I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit."
CPS is facing a steep budget shortfall and a severely underfunded pension system, as well as lingering criticism after dozens of schools were closed in 2013 in what Emanuel and education officials argued would help focus resources and improve the school system.
In the crowded courtroom early Tuesday, a tense Byrd-Bennett stood unmoving before Judge Edmond Chang. She answered "yes, your honor," to all of his questions. If she doesn't fully cooperate with investigators, as pledged in the deal, prosecutors can revoke the sentencing recommendation for a stiffer term.
SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates LLC owners Gary Soloman and Thomas Vranas are accused of offering her money along with sporting-event tickets and other kickbacks in exchange for the contracts. Both suburban Chicago men face multiple charges, including bribery and conspiracy to defraud.
Soloman's attorney said in a statement last week that Soloman has cooperated in the investigation and stands behind his companies. Vranas and his attorney didn't comment after the indictment.
CPS suspended its contract with SUPES Academy shortly after Byrd-Bennett took a paid leave of absence in April; she resigned two months later.
As a condition of her release, the judge said Byrd-Bennett would have to provide a DNA sample. No sentencing date will be set until Soloman's and Vranas' cases run their course.
According to legal experts, the speed of Byrd-Bennett's plea speaks volumes about the Fed's case.
"It tells me that there's an overwhelming case, that realistically she's come to the conclusion that there's no point in prolonging and every time she's gonna prolong it, she's gonna be on the front page of the news or the TV," said Richard Kling of Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Forrest Claypool, who took over for Byrd Bennet, said changes are being made to prevent this type of corruption from happening in the future.
"And we're going to put in top auditing controls which we're already begun, top to bottom audit of the system, and reforms of the bidding process to tightly constrict no bid situations like this," Claypool said.