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Former board member, ex-CEO of Chicago schools are accused of ethical lapses

District's inspector general says former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, now in prison for her role in a kickback scheme, steered a $6 million contract in 2014 to a company in which board member Deborah Quazzo was an investor.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, now in prison for a kickback scheme involving millions of dollars in school contracts, accepted lavish meals at some of the city’s priciest restaurants from a district vendor whose investors included a school board member.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the findings are contained in a report to the board from district Inspector General Nicholas Schuler, whose investigation led the FBI to Byrd-Bennett.

Among the findings in the report:

• Byrd-Bennett steered a $6 million contract in 2014 to Think Through Math, a company in which board member Deborah Quazzo was invested. Quazzo served on the board from 2013 to 2015.

• Byrd-Bennett and top aides she brought with her to the school system had a series of expensive meals on that company’s dime during the bidding process for that deal.

• Quazzo violated the school system’s ethics code by talking up her companies’ products to school principals and introducing them to company representatives. At first Quazzo denied to Schuler that she had done so, but acknowledged her actions after being shown emails proving what she had done.

“While Quazzo’s ethical violations were arguably less egregious than Byrd-Bennett’s violations involving her dealings with [Think Through Math],” Schuler wrote, “Quazzo’s violations were significant, nonetheless.”

Think Through Math "should not have been awarded the district-wide contract, and Quazzo should not have been pushing that company," the inspector general says. "The combination of the two is horrible.”

According to the inspector general’s memo, the district's ethics policy violates state law and needs to be changed.

Schuler wrote that it’s not enough for board members to decline to vote on matters in which they have a significant financial interest. He says the school system should be prohibited from doing business at all with those companies — unless the board member with an ownership stake either divests or resigns.

In 2015, Quazzo said she saw no conflict of interest but asked Emanuel not to reappoint her after a Sun-Times investigation revealed that companies in which she had a stake had seen their business from Chicago Public Schools triple in the year since her appointment, taking in more than $3.8 million. Also, the Quazzo companies had gotten $1.3 million from district-funded charter schools.

Schuler says Quazzo had financial interests in eight companies doing business with the district while she served on the board.

Byrd-Bennett is serving a 4½-year prison sentence after she was caught steering more than $20 million in no-bid contracts to her previous employers at SUPES Academy and promised kickbacks. Her replacement, Forrest Claypool, was pushed out in December after lying to Schuler to cover up an ethical violation involving a top attorney for the school system.

According to Schuler’s report, Quazzo “appears to have at least facially violated the Illinois School Code’s prohibition on school board members having an interest in board contracts."

Schuler stopped short of pursuing criminal charges because he found Quazzo had been told by district and mayoral staffers that she could serve on the school board as long as she disclosed her interests, abstained from voting on any deals involving her businesses and refrained from taking part in board discussions of them. 

The school district will change its ethics policy, spokeswoman Emily Bolton says.

 

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