The Chicago Public Schools district is looking to recoup the money it lost in the multimillion-dollar kickback scheme former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett engaged in with SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates.
The $65 million suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, names Byrd-Bennett and SUPES Academy co-owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas as defendents in the case. The school district noted that state law allows for public entities that have been defrauded to seek damages up to three times the amount that was stolen.
At the center of the corruption scandal is the $20.5 million no-bid principal training contract awarded by CPS to Wilmette-based SUPES. The Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved the SUPES contract back in 2013, a month after it voted to close 50 underutilized neighborhood schools. After being indicted on 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to one wire fraud charge as part of her plea agreement with prosecutors.
"In plain terms, defendants have stolen money from (CPS) and the schoolchildren of the city of Chicago, and that money should be returned," the suit reads. "Defendants have used and are continuing to use public funds fraudulently obtained from (CPS) to pay multiple law firms to defend them in their efforts to avoid the consequence of their wrongful conduct."
In return for helping SUPES secure the $20 million contract and Synesi get additional CPS contracts, Byrd-Bennett was set to receive a lucrative job with the company upon her retirement from CPS along with $250,000 for two family members. The former schools chief also received professional sports tickets, expensive meals, jobs for her friends, and reimbursement for a CPS holiday party for which she paid.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, who was tapped for the job following Byrd-Bennett's dismissal over the scandal, made note of the financial quagmire in which the scheme put the school district.
"Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her co-conspirators knew the district's dire straits and still concocted this scheme to divert needed resources away from classrooms and line their own pockets," Claypoll said via statement. "So today CPS took action in Cook County court to go after the $65 million in damages and civil penalties that our children are entitled to receive. With serious budget challenges facing the district, we'll continue to fight for every dollar our children deserve."
The Chicago Teachers Union is questioning the lawsuit, with the labor union releasing a statement saying the move "misses the mark":
The mayor's handpicked CEO Forest Claypool once again misses the mark with his slapdash lawsuit against convicted felon Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her SUPES Academy cronies. Why wasn't former Chicago Board of Education president David Vitale included as a defendant in the litigation as well? The public deserves to know what his role was in awarding the no-bid contract in an elaborate kick-back scheme.
Not only did Mr. Vitale, a banker, turn a blind eye to the glaring conflicts of interest in his own breach of fiduciary duty, but as Board president, he negotiated toxic swap bank deals that have siphoned millions of dollars from public schools. In what may be yet another case of "unjust enrichment," the former Board president was a member of the board of directors of United Airlines when it brokered $10 million in city grants and more than $30 million in TIF subsidies that is funded from revenue redirected from Chicago tax districts--including Chicago Public Schools, the same district he took an oath to protect. Since Mr. Claypool is in the suing mood, he should seek to recoup the more than $300 million that the Vitale-led Board of Education has given away to its politically connected corporate friends.