The Chicago Way is alive and well.
On Friday at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, Barbara Byrd-Bennett will find out how much time she is going to spend in federal prison—anywhere from 3½ to 7 years.
Why is Byrd-Bennett, the former chief executive of Chicago Public Schools and a Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointee, going to spend so much time in a federal prison? Because two years ago, she pleaded guilty to a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme, in which she had steered more than $20 million in no-bid contracts to friends in exchange for more than $2 million in bribes. Also, according to prosecutors, she hired her friends at CPS, exploited her knowledge of the city’s school system to enrich herself and stole money to spend on college tuition and wedding costs for her family members.
So Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a 66-year-old woman, is going to spend the later years of her life not with family, friends, kids and grandkids, but in prison—where her every movement will be watched and controlled.
Because of Byrd-Bennett’s actions, money and resources that should have gone to CPS students ended up in the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats, cronies and companies willing to cheat, swindle and profit at the expense of Chicago children.
How on earth, in 2017, does Chicago not have a no-bid contract system?
How, in 2017, has Chicago not set up enough checks and balances so people like Byrd-Bennett can’t steer contracts to friends and criminals?
Most jurisdictions and large cities use blind bidding contract systems, in which the people awarding contracts have no idea which persons or companies are getting the deals. The only criteria used to determine what company is awarded a contract is the value of the proposal and past performance reports of the unidentified bidding company. Everyone gets to bid—no friendly recommendations, no favors called in, no big donations, none of it. The best company gets the contract, period.
Not in Chicago. Its old, unjustifiable and easily corruptible way of awarding contracts made it easy for Byrd-Bennett and others like her to make these bad decisions and cheat the people who need the most help.
Chicagoans are well versed with storylines like Byrd-Bennett’s. Just Google “Chicago bribery elected official” and review the 604,000 results discussing the ghosts (and some corpses) of past Chicago corruption.
Even within the past two years, another Emanuel hire, Amer Ahmad, the previous City of Chicago comptroller, was indicted and convicted on near-identical charges to Byrd-Bennett, stemming from a kickback scheme when he served in an official capacity in Ohio. He’s serving his 15 years in federal prison now.
This isn’t really about Byrd-Bennett—it’s about The Chicago Way, the culture of allowing corruption, malfeasance, privilege and insider dealings, regardless of who it hurts.
The Chicago Way always starts with power and privilege and ends in corruption, capture and prosecution. With the city’s red light camera scandal, drivers were hurt. With the hired truck scandal, Chicago taxpayers were hurt. With the Byrd-Bennett scandal, students were hurt.
Yet the systems that allow these scandals to occur are still in place and the scandals repeat day after day, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade.
Until Chicagoans decide that The Chicago Way has to go and force our elected officials to make the necessary changes and reforms, get ready to read about the sentencing of “insert elected official name here” for years to come. And be prepared to foot the bill and deal with the damage.