April 28, 2017 / 10:16 PM / 4 months ago

Former Chicago Public Schools chief sentenced for fraud

CHICAGO, April 28 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday sentenced the former chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools to 4-1/2 years in prison for her role in a scheme to steer lucrative contracts to one of her previous employers in exchange for kickbacks and bribes, the Department of Justice said.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang at a Chicago courthouse, according to Joe Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois.

An attorney for Byrd-Bennett did not immediately respond to request for comment.

"I'm ashamed and I'm sorry. I let down the students and their families. They deserved better," Byrd-Bennett said in court, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 appointed Byrd-Bennett, a veteran education reformer, to head the district, after the first teachers' strike in Chicago in 25 years. The district serves around 400,000 students in more than 600 schools.

"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," Emanuel said in a statement on Friday.

Byrd-Bennett resigned in June 2015 amid a federal probe into a $20.5 million no-bid contract for a principal training program the cash-strapped district had awarded to her previous employer, educational consulting firm SUPES Academy.

She pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in October 2015 as part of a plea agreement and agreed to cooperate against two co-defendants in the case: the heads of SUPES and related firm Synesi Associates.

Byrd-Bennett maintained an interest in the companies through a secret consulting agreement, according to court documents. The agreement promised to pay her a percentage of the proceeds from the contracts she helped procure.

Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, who ran SUPES and Synesi, have both been sentenced for their roles in the scheme. Solomon was sentenced to seven years in prison by a federal judge in March and Vranas to 18 months on Friday, Fitzpatrick said.

The CPS system continues to face financial woes due to the state's broader fiscal problems.

A recent report by the Illinois State Board of Education indicated the nation's third-largest public school system had enough cash on hand on average this year to cover only 12 days of expenses. (Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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