Ex-school clerk admits scamming CPS out of money for Disney cruise in midst of Byrd-Bennett scandal

A former business clerk at Caldwell Math and Science Academy admitted Thursday that she scammed Chicago Public Schools out of thousands of dollars to help pay for a Disney cruise — all while the district was reeling from a kickback scandal involving its ex-CEO.

Ashley Beard, 33, of Hammond, Indiana, pleaded guilty to one wire fraud count before U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. Beard was first charged earlier this year as part of a larger fraud investigation involving former Brennemann Elementary School Principal Sarah Jackson Abedelal.

Also charged are former Brennemann business manager William Jackson and former Assistant Principal Jennifer McBride, as well as Debra Bannack and Anthony Rasmussen, who worked for CPS vendor Warehouse Direct.

The fraud scheme outlined so far by prosecutors — involving phony overtime claims and bogus orders for ink, paper and other printer supplies — took place before, during and after the separate kickback scandal that led to the 2015 conviction and 2017 sentencing of former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.


Abedelal pleaded guilty to her role in the recently charged scheme earlier this year. Abedelal and Beard have agreed to cooperate with federal investigators. Their sentencing hearings have not been set.

Before Beard entered her plea Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Mott told the judge that Beard and Bannack spoke by phone early in 2017. That’s when he said Bannack explained to Beard that she could secure "personal, non-school items" for Beard while billing Caldwell academy.

To do so, Bannack allegedly told Beard she would need a fake purchase order from Beard for school supplies that matched the cost of the personal items sought by Beard.

At the time, Mott said, Beard was planning a Disney cruise for her family and wanted prepaid gift cards from Disney and other merchants. Bannack bought four $500 prepaid Disney gift cards for Beard, one in February 2017 and three in March 2017, along with other miscellaneous gift cards, according to Beard’s plea agreement.

Beard sent Bannack bogus paperwork for school-supply orders, according to the plea deal. One in February 2017 was for "supplies and ink" in the amount of $2,857, and the other in March 2017 was for "supplies" in the amount of $3,542.90.

Bannack supplied Beard with matching invoices, and Beard used them to have CPS pay Bannack’s company, covering the cost of the gift cards.

All of that occurred as the scandal involving Byrd-Bennett and two consultants continued to make headlines. One of the two consultants, Gary Solomon, was sentenced to seven years in prison in March 2017. The other, Thomas Vranas, was sentenced to 18 months in late April 2017.

Byrd-Bennett was sentenced the same day as Vranas. She got four-and-a-half years behind bars.

One month after Byrd-Bennett’s sentencing, on May 29, 2017, Beard’s plea agreement said she caused CPS to make a $3,542.90 payment as part of her own scheme.