By Fran Eaton and Dennis LaComb | Watchdog Arena
When blogger Sarah Karp started digging through a pile of Chicago Public School papers in 2013, neither she nor anyone else could have imagined that her curiosity and sense of public service would lead to the downfall of the nation’s third largest school district’s top official.
Last Thursday, former Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was indicted by a federal grand jury for funneling no-bid CPS contracts to former employers in exchange for kickbacks.
Sarah Karp, whose son attends sixth grade at a Chicago public school, said while reviewing CPS paperwork, she found that the CPS Board had quietly approved a $20-million contract with SUPES Academy, a non-profit educational group where Byrd-Bennett had worked before taking charge of Chicago Public Schools.
That scenario didn’t set right with Karp. She wrote in July 2013 about her findings on Catalyst Chicago, a blog that covers urban school issues.
“After covering CPS for almost a decade, I knew it was unheard of for the district to award a no-bid contract of that magnitude, especially for something that other organizations are able to handle. It was suspicious for SUPES, a small company not well known to education experts in the city, to be awarded such a large contract,” she explained.
Not only did the information concern Ms. Karp, her story on Catalyst Chicago caught the eye of Chicago Public Schools’ Inspector General Jim Sullivan. Before long, the Chicago area FBI was looking into the deal.
“Graft and corruption in our city’s public school system tears at the fabric of a vital resource for the children of Chicago,” said Zachary T. Fardon, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. “School officials and city vendors who abuse the public trust will be held accountable.”
At a press conference announcing the indictment of Byrd-Bennett and two former associates, Fardon acknowledged Sarah Karp’s reporting as igniting the investigation.
He also said that Byrd-Bennett was cooperating with authorities and was expected to plead guilty to the charges at her arraignment scheduled for October 13, 2015.
Before taking a job at CPS, from 2011 to April 2012, Byrd-Bennett served as a consultant for SUPES Academy, a professional group based in Wilmette, Illinois that trains school administrators. There, Byrd-Bennett worked with Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, who owned and operated SUPES.
Karp said finding the connection between Byrd-Bennett’s past employment and the CPS no-bid contract triggered more digging.
“I discovered Byrd-Bennett had worked for the company as a consultant,” Karp said. “What’s more, there was evidence that she was still working for another Solomon and Vranas company after she took a position with CPS.”
Karp found that while Byrd-Bennett consulted for CPS between May 2012 and October 12, 2012, she continued to stay involved in a second Solomon-Vranas entity. After the short CPS consulting stint, Byrd-Bennett assumed the role of CPS’ chief executive officer until she resigned in May 2015.
Beginning in April 2012, the federal indictment says, Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas “knowingly devised, intended to devise, and participated in a scheme to defraud and to obtain money and property from CPS” by fraudulent means.
Byrd-Bennett is said to have agreed to accept bribes and kickbacks that would be paid by $127,000 being deposited into each of her twin grandsons’ “college tuition accounts” when she returned to SUPES as an employee–even if for just a day.
An email from Solomon to Byrd on December 6, 2012 said, “It is our assumption, that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES/Synesi. If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day. Regardless, it will be paid out on day one.”
For the agreed upon fee, Byrd-Bennett provided information to Solomon and Vranas about proposal requests, spoke on the company’s behalf to encourage contract obligations, asked for help of specific CPS officials and falsely represented that she had formally resigned from the SUPES Academy.
As a result, Byrd-Bennett was charged with 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud for the emails scheming fraud of federal and state taxpayers. Each count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
Karp said that when she first began requesting information from CPS, she was treated as “an enemy” and her requests were, for the most part, ignored.
“You know, if the enemy is somebody that tries to make sure that somebody’s not stealing from the government that the mayor runs, than I guess I’m the enemy,” Karp told a local television reporter.
But a system like the Chicago Public Schools that is pleading for higher and higher property taxes and closing doors of neighborhood schools in attempts to cut costs has no business wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, Karp said.
“This is something that my kid, other kids, they need, depend on. And, you know, there are so many people out there scrambling and worried about what’s going to happen over the next month. It’s just not a good day to say money was wasted,” Karp said.
Since the 2012 story, Karp moved to research and write for Chicago-based Better Government Association, a transparency group known for its efforts rooting out public corruption.
As a result of Karp’s work, the district cancelled the SUPES contract in April 2015, when the federal investigation came to light. SUPES received $12 million of the $20.5 million no-bid contract.
Prosecutors say they will seek restitution from the company and its owners.
UPDATE: On Tuesday Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty and apologized for her actions.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.