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Former Chicago Schools CEO Tried To Steer Millions More In Contracts To Friends, Watchdog Finds

Barbara Byrd-Bennett went to prison for steering $23 million in contracts in exchange for cash and gifts. She tried to steer more than $6 million in additional contracts to friends, according to a new report.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett
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CHICAGO — The infamous former head of Chicago Public Schools tried to steer millions of dollars more in contracts to two friends than has previously been reported, the district’s top watchdog said Wednesday.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former CEO of the district, abruptly resigned her position and was subsequently sentenced in 2017 to 4-½ years in prison for steering $23 million in contracts for principal training in exchange for cash and gifts. In one email, she brazenly said: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit (:”

Byrd-Bennett, now 71, was allowed to leave prison early this year because she could potentially be exposed to coronavirus in jail.

But nearly six years after her resignation, CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher said this week his office is still uncovering crimes committed by Byrd-Bennett “to enrich herself and her friends through lucrative CPS contracts.”

The report details Byrd-Bennett’s “brazen disregard” for CPS procurement rules in steering business to two close friends, only identified as “Friend A” and “Friend B” in the report.

Byrd-Bennett directed $6.3 million to an unidentified company “because Friend A and Friend B worked there,” according to the report. Although the contract was awarded through a competitive bidding process, the report states Byrd-Bennett along with other CPS officials engineered the process to award the contract to the company.

An attorney for CPS and a network chief created a request for proposals modeled after a document provided by Company 1, and emails sent before the awarding of the contract show Company 1 executives knew they would win the contract before the request for proposal was released to the public, according to the report.

In the year leading up to Company 1 winning the $6.3 million contract, the report states the two friends “repeatedly met” with Byrd-Bennett, a CPS network chief and a top aide, including several dinners at Chicago steakhouses paid for by Friend 1.

After her two friends had a falling out with Company 1, Byrd-Bennett then explored ways to give the work to a new company formed by the two friends, but was rebuffed by the district’s attorneys, according to the report.

Byrd-Bennett then pressured Company 1 to award $5 million of the business to be awarded to her friends’ new company as a subcontractor. When she was unsuccessful, she instead awarded them $25,000 in CPS business, the Inspector General alleged.

Undeterred, Byrd-Bennett then attempted to pressure a third company to hire her friends as sub-contractors for a new $3.8 million contract. Ultimately, Company 3 did not enter an agreement with the two friends to carry out the work, but the report says the company’s executive misled investigators about the nature of her relationship with Byrd-Bennett.

Beyond Byrd-Bennett, an attorney working in the district “participated in the improper steering process” before leaving the district and taking a job as general counsel for the company owned by the two friends, according to the report.

The unidentified executive told investigators she only knew Byrd-Bennett in passing, but emails and text messages show the two women were “friendly and communicated often.”

The two also dined together at the Pump Room ahead of the contract being awarded, despite the executive initially saying she had never dined with Byrd-Bennett.

The report does not identify the names of the companies involved in Byrd-Bennett’s schemes or the names of her friends. The Sun-Times identified Company 1 as Knowledge Delivery System.

In response to the Inspector General’s findings, CPS has moved to place more players involved in the schemes on do-not-hire lists and is in the process of “initiating debarment proceedings” against the two friends, their company and executives of Company 1, preventing them from obtaining future business with the district, according to the report.

The Board plans to place the executive of Company 3 on a two-year suspension from engaging in business with the district.

Company 3 is still in business with the district, and the board agreed to hire an independent monitor to review its work.

Wednesday’s annual report includes a review of sexual misconduct cases reviewed by the OIG, including 430 new cases opened by the office during the last school year that led to four criminal charges and 13 ongoing investigations.

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