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Chicago District Sues Ex. Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett for More Than $65M

UPDATED

The Chicago school district is suing former superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the owners at SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates for more than $65 million in damages in connection with the ex-superintendent's role in steering about $23.5 million in contracts to  companies owned by her former employers, the Chicago Tribune reported Thursday.

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Court in Chicago and first reported by the Tribune, accuses Byrd-Bennett, Gary Solomon, the owner of SUPES Academy and Synesi, and Thomas Vranas, who is also a co-owner of SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, and the two companies of conspiring to defraud the school district of millions of dollars through a bribery and kickback scheme.

The lawsuit accuses Byrd-Bennett and the other defendants of deceiving the school district, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and fraudulently obtaining public funds, which should be returned.

The defendants' conduct was "intentionally deceitful, and so reprehensible" that it warrants punitive damages, according to the lawsuit.

Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty last October to one count of wire fraud in connection with the bribery scheme. She is cooperating with federal authorities in their case against Vranas and Solomon, and faces up to 7.5 years prison. 

Federal officials have said that Byrd-Bennett agreed to steer contracts to SUPES Academy in return for secret kickbacks. The scheme netted her more than $865,000, the district says in its lawsuit. 

The lawsuit alleges that Byrd-Bennett made the deal to steer business to Vranas and Solomon well before she was appointed CEO of Chicago schools in October 2012. Byrd-Bennett had worked as a consultant for SUPES before taking the top job in Chicago.

Byrd-Bennett falsely told the district when introducing a Synesi employee to CPS that she would receive no financial benefit, and she gave Synesi information that provided the company with an advantage over competitors, according to the lawsuit.

Simply put, the lawsuit says, the defendants "have stolen money from Plaintiff and the schoolchildren of the City of Chicago, and that money should be returned." 

[Update (6:01 p.m.): CPS's CEO Forrest Claypool said in a statement that Byrd-Bennett and company were aware of CPS's financial situation yet proceeded to take "needed resources" away from students.

"With scarce resources, staff furloughs and painful budget cuts, CPS is keeping a close watch on every dollar," Claypool said. "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. 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." ]

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