December 5, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15 CR 00620-2 -
Edmond E. Chang, Judge.
Wood, Chief Judge, and Rovner and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
it may try, Chicago has not yet managed to shake free from
the scourge of public corruption. Gary Solomon, Thomas
Vranas, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett have added another chapter
to this inglorious history. As CEO of the Chicago Public
Schools (CPS), Byrd-Bennett worked behind the scenes to
assure that two companies headed by Solomon and Vranas would
receive lucrative contracts. In exchange, Solomon and Vranas
agreed that they would pay Byrd-Bennett a percentage of the
revenue generated by those contracts when she came to work
for them at the end of her tenure with CPS. After the
fraudulent scheme was exposed, each participant pleaded
guilty to committing wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C.
§§ 1343 and 1346. Solomon was sentenced to 84
months' imprisonment, 30 months more than Byrd-Bennett
received. Solomon's sentence also significantly exceeds
Vranas's, though that gap is irrelevant for this appeal.
wants a new sentencing hearing. He accuses the district court
of incorporating the value of a contract unrelated to the
criminal agreement into his advisory sentencing guidelines
calculation. That alleged error resulted in an offense score
that was four levels higher than Solomon believes it should
have been. Additionally, Solomon believes that the disparity
between Byrd-Bennett's sentence and his sentence is
unwarranted, making his sentence substantively unreasonable.
Because the record supports the court's decision to
include the contested contract in the offense level
calculation, and because dissimilar cooperation is a
reasonable basis for a sentencing disparity, we affirm the
district court's sentence.
she joined CPS in May 2012, Byrd-Bennett briefly consulted
for a pair of companies (The SUPES Academy, LLC, and Synesi
Associates, LLC) to which we refer as SUPES. SUPES provided
training services for educators. Solomon was its CEO, and
Vranas its President. Byrd-Bennett's consulting role with
SUPES entitled her to a percentage of the companies'
revenue. When Byrd-Bennett assumed her public positions,
first consulting for CPS and later as its CEO, her
relationship with SUPES persisted, despite the fact that as
an agent of CPS she was not allowed to have an economic
interest in any vendor contracts. Byrd-Bennett used her
authority as the head of CPS to ensure that SUPES won two
lucrative contracts. The first, ultimately valued at $2.54
million, was awarded within two weeks of her taking over the
top job for the school district. The second followed her
ascension by eight months and was worth $20.5 million. Each
was a sole-source contract-meaning it was a contract for
which there could be only one bidder.
exchange for this largesse, Solomon and Vranas deposited a
percentage of the revenue generated from those contracts into
trusts for the benefit of Byrd-Bennett's two grandsons.
The plan was that once she finished with her CPS service, she
would return to SUPES and receive control of the trusts as a
"signing bonus." SUPES also set aside revenue into
a "development fund, " a portion of which was
earmarked for Byrd-Bennett, again to be paid on her return to
Robert Burns observed, "The best laid schemes o'
mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley." So it was here. No
more than a month after the second contract was awarded, the
Inspector General for the Chicago Board of Education launched
an investigation into Byrd-Bennett's relationship with
SUPES. As Vranas would later admit, he and Solomon deleted
emails sent between them and Byrd-Bennett when they learned
about the investigation. Almost two years to the day of
Byrd-Bennett's taking the reins as CEO, a grand jury
returned a 23-count indictment against Solomon, Vranas, and
Byrd-Bennett. They were charged with, among other things, a
scheme to obtain public money through bribery and kickbacks.
All three defendants pleaded guilty on one count.
Solomon's sentencing hearing, he and the government
disagreed about the scope of the fraudulent arrangement. He
argued that his agreement with Byrd-Bennett reached only the
first of the two contracts SUPES received, while the
government countered that the agreement remained in force
through the second contract. If Solomon was right, the value
of the monetary benefit he and Vranas received from the
scheme, calculated as the profit earned from each contract,
was $508, 000. If the government was right, the benefit was
$2.9 million. This translated, for purposes of the U.S.
Sentencing Guidelines, into a difference of four levels in
the required enhancement to the baseline offense score of 12,
see U.S.S.G. § 2C1.1(a)(2), from 12 additional levels to
16, see U.S.S.G. §§ 2B1.1(b)(1), 2C1.1(b)(2).
Solomon did not dispute the government's benefit
calculation if the second contract was found to be part of
district court found that the evidence backed the government.
After adding another four levels because the scheme involved
a public official in a high-level position, U.S.S.G. §
2C1.1(b)(3), plus two more levels for obstruction of justice,
U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1, and then subtracting three levels for
acceptance of responsibility, U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1(a), (b),
the court found a final offense level of 31. Together with
Solomon's Criminal History Category I, this yielded an
advisory sentencing range of 108-135 months. After weighing
the sentencing factors outlined by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a),
the court selected a final sentence of 84 months'
Byrd-Bennett was still awaiting sentencing at the time of
Solomon's hearing, the district court discussed her and
Solomon's relative culpability. The government
acknowledged that had all things been equal, it would have
preferred that Byrd-Bennett receive a harsher sentence than
Solomon. And indeed, the advisory guidelines sentence for
Byrd-Bennett, which accounted for the fact that she was a
public official, was 135-168 months. But the government
advised the judge that it supported a higher sentence for
Solomon. It did so in large part because of
Byrd-Bennett's much more extensive cooperation with the
investigation-cooperation that the government intended to
reward through the filing of a motion under U.S.S.G. §
5K1.1 at the appropriate time. Moreover, Solomon profited
immediately from the scheme. While ...