There was a time when I’d hear stories about corruption in Chicago politics and think that it was all hyperbole—that it didn’t happen here more than in any other American city. That changed in 2011, when I became a Chicago Public School principal. After four years, I cannot imagine a more corrupt and ethically bankrupt system outside the Third World. There has been a common pattern to the corruption during the Emanuel regime. I call it, “Cut, Contradict, and Collect.”
- First, they cut a public service under the guise of saving money.
- Second, in contradiction to step one, they waste huge sums of public money on projects that enrich one or more private investors.
- Third, the public official collects kickbacks, favors, or political contributions from the private investor.
Enter Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked former schools CEO, who on Tuesday pleaded guilty to federal charges related to a bribery scheme in which she diverted more than $23 million from public schools toward a private business (SUPES Academy) in return for $2.3 million in kickbacks.
She engineered this massive theft as she was gearing up to close nearly 50 schools in low-income African American and Latino neighborhoods. The public rationale was to save money. Byrd-Bennett followed the Cut, Contradict, and Collect script to the letter: Her cuts were the 50 schools she closed. Her contradiction was the $23 million lavished on her former employer, and her collection was the $2.3 million in kickbacks.
The CPS Board of Education was equally culpable in this crime against Chicago’s children. Although Byrd-Bennett advocated awarding the SUPES contracts, she can’t spend $23 million on her own. She has to get approval for that. She got that approval from the unelected Board of Education appointed by Rahm Emanuel. She got that approval with unanimous consent and no public discussion whatsoever.
Emanuel’s Board stood by Byrd-Bennett even after Catalyst magazine published an expose of the SUPES deal; after questions were raised by an investigation by the CPS inspector general; and after numerous vocal complaints from CPS principals about the poor quality of the SUPES training. They paid about as much attention to Byrd-Bennett and SUPES’ thievery as they do to ordinary citizens whom come to board meetings to voice their opinions during the allotted two-minute remark periods.
Who else is this board failing to hold accountable (excluding themselves)? How about the office of the Mayor who appointed them? According to the Tribune, Emanuel’s Deputy Chief of staff, Beth Swanson, communicated extensively with the founder of SUPES Academy—who is also under indictment for bribery. The SUPES founder was consulted by the Mayor’s Office regarding the appointments of both Jean-Claude Brizard and Byrd-Bennett to the position of CPS CEO position.
More importantly, no one has mastered the Cut, Contradict, and Collect technique like Rahm Emanuel. After shutting down nearly 50 schools for “under enrollment,” he built more for-profit charter schools even though many of the existing ones are under-enrolled and nearly 9 out of every 10 charters are in the bottom half of CPS performance in terms of measured student learning improvements in reading. He collects campaign contributions from charter school investors and supporters. He cut. He contradicted. He collected.
In 2013 Emanuel slashed school budgets at the same time he was entering CPS into a $17 million preschool loan agreement that will ultimately cost CPS over $30 million as a result of high interest paid to investors. All three investors (Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust, and Pritzker) are among Emanuel’s top 60 campaign contributors. He cut. He contradicted. He collected.
Examples abound. Emanuel’s acceptance of $250,000 from Sodexo Magic after the firm was awarded a multimillion custodial management contract with CPS is yet another instance of Cut, Contradict, and Collect. The Tribune documented at least 60 instances of Emanuel campaign contributors benefiting from city contracts and appointments. They cut. They contradict. They collect.
In issuing the indictment U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said, “School officials and city vendors who abuse the public trust will be held accountable.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Attorney cannot hold Emanuel accountable. The major difference between Rahm Emanuel and his indicted appointee to CPS is that Byrd-Bennett’s actions violate the law, while Emanuel’s–as far as we know–do not. However, both are ethically bankrupt. Both steered millions of CPS dollars toward private investors and both got millions in return. Emanuel continues to do so. Bennett’s millions went to her personal use, while Emanuel’s went to get him re-elected. Either way, students and residents lose out as both of these public officials facilitate private graft of public resources.
To be clear, Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett are not the source of all things corrupt in Chicago. They simply take advantage of a opportunities Illinois’ and Chicago’s political systems make available to them. However, accountability has to start somewhere. First we must institute strong oversight mechanisms and overhaul the legal framework in city and state government that allows public officials to collect campaign donations from firms that benefit from their actions in office. Second, we must use all our wisdom and might to stop the needless cuts to schools and other public services. Third, we must work overtime to expose the contradictions of the political and economic actors who would make those cuts. If the U.S. Attorney can’t–or wont–hold Emanuel and other public officials accountable, we must do it ourselves.
Perez Jr., Juan and Dizikes, Cynthia (3/19/2015). CPS group rips “Magic” custodian deal, contributions to Emanuel campaign. Chicago Tribune.
Andrzejewski, Adam (March 25, 2015). The Moral Bankruptcy of Chicago’s Elites: As the City Approaches Bankruptcy Chicago’s Elites Line their Pockets with Taxpayer Money. Forbes Magazine.
Chase, John; Coen, Jeff & Ruthhart, Bill (January 30, 2015). Rahm Emanuel Counts on Big Donors, with Many getting City Hall Benefits. Chicago Tribune.
Joravsky, Ben (December 3, 2014). How Investment Bankers are Set to Profit from Rahm’s Preschool Plan. Chicago Reader.