Former Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett wrecked her career for virtually nothing, but the man to whom she illegally steered CPS contracts personally pocketed more than $5 million from the company at the heart of the scandal, newly released court documents show.
SUPES Academy co-owner Gary Solomon, 48, earned $2.7 million from SUPES the year before federal authorities began sending subpoenas seeking information about several no-bid principal-training deals the company landed with CPS.
Solomon reported $1.9 million in income in 2013, when CPS approved a jaw-dropping $20.5 million no-bid contract with SUPES just a month after shuttering a record 48 schools.
The money helped Solomon buy homes on Chicago’s North Shore and in Michigan, as well as set aside money for college tuition for his three children.
But now — as the feds suggest Solomon serve nine years in prison for masterminding the scheme — he is trying to lessen his share of the blame by calling out not only Byrd-Bennett, but also Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Solomon; his business partner Thomas Vranas, and Byrd-Bennett all have pleaded guilty in the plot to steer $23 million in no-bid CPS deals to SUPES and other companies Solomon and Vranas controlled. Solomon pleaded guilty last October to one count of honest-services wire fraud and is to be sentenced March 24.
Emanuel’s staff “solicited Solomon’s assistance in convincing [Byrd-Bennett] to join CPS,” Solomon’s lawyers wrote Wednesday in asking a judge to consider a much shorter prison term: no more than 18 months.
Emanuel’s office “knew of Bennett’s employment relationship” with SUPES, they wrote. And the mayor’s deputy education chief, Beth Swanson, even leaned on Solomon “when Bennett ‘seemed off’ or ‘more emotional’ because she knew that Gary ‘had more context on her life,’ given their relationship.”
Swanson, now a Joyce Foundation vice president, couldn’t be reached. The mayor’s office rebuffed the attempt to inject Emanuel into the scandal.
“The U.S. Attorney addressed this a year and a half ago when he first filed charges in this case,” mayoral communications director Adam Collins wrote. “He said Barbara ‘and her co-defendants worked to hide and conceal their graft, and she misled other officials about the contracts. . .’
“The bottom line is that, as soon as this office became aware of the contract, we raised tough questions about it. [Solomon’s] comments are nothing more than defense attorneys trying to spare their client from a nine-year prison sentence for a crime he helped concoct before Barbara even started working at CPS.”
Solomon’s attorney, Anthony Masciopinto, declined to comment, deferring to his 65-page memo that reads “if anyone should be described as ‘engineering’ the parties’ honest services bribery, it is Bennett.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Church writes in her memo, also filed Wednesday, that Solomon “profited the most from this corruption, and he should pay the most.”
SUPES and its sister companies, Synesi Associates and PROACT Search, took in profits of more than $10 million from CPS, according to the government. Solomon reported $5.68 million in total income from SUPES between 2011 and 2015.
In their efforts to minimize his prison time, Solomon’s own attorneys downplayed some of the gifts he had sent to Byrd-Bennett that prosecutors considered bribes.
“While certainly accepting responsibility for ‘gifts’ provided to Bennett, it is equally important to be precise to avoid overblowing their purpose, significance or frequency,” Masciopinto wrote. “Gary and Vranas provided Bennett with house warming gifts when she moved into an apartment as part of her Chicago residency requirement. These gifts included (1) a trash can, (2) a framed map of Chicago, (3) a Mr. Coffee maker, (4) four mugs, and (5) a dustpan and broom.”
“On one or two occasions” Byrd-Bennett got professional baseball or basketball tickets and, once, Solomon bought her a plane ticket to Chicago from New York using frequent-flyer miles.
But Solomon and Vranas also had planned to pay Byrd-Bennett up to a 10 percent kickback on the business she sent their way. That money never arrived, though, because it had been promised as a payout once she left CPS — and the feds broke up the scheme before then.
In seeking leniency, Solomon’s attorneys wrote that he has already paid a third of the $254,000 restitution owed to CPS. The school system also is suing Solomon, Vranas and Byrd-Bennett for $65 million. “Now he faces financial ruin,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, Solomon in December posted photos on Facebook of his family skiing together in Colorado. Solomon also asked Judge Edmond E. Chang for permission to leave the country in January for a vacation with his wife. He later changed the request to instead take a “short trip to Puerto Rico.”