Barbara Byrd-Bennett has admitted to using her position as Chicago Public Schools chief to steer lucrative contracts to firms connected to her, with plans of accepting kickbacks for the deals.
Federal prosecutors have urged a judge to sentence her to more than seven years in prison.
Among those who have written to Judge Edward Chang on Byrd-Bennett's behalf is Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.
The letter is sealed, but public records show that Hite was among 91 people, mostly former colleagues or employees in Chicago and Cleveland, who provided character references.
Hite first met Byrd-Bennett over a decade ago, when he was a deputy superintendent in Prince George's County, Md., and she was the schools chief in Cleveland. She became a coach to him, a mentor who provided technical support but, more important, Hite said, encouragement.
"I was a young man that she took under her wing," Hite said Thursday. "She said, 'You really should think about pursuing opportunities in district leadership.' She was a role model for me at a time when I didn't think I could do this work."
Her crime speaks for itself, and Hite said he's certain Byrd-Bennett is resolved to accept the consequences.
"That does not change the fact that she was very helpful," Hite said. "She was a real force for young administrators."
Over the years, the two kept in contact, Hite said. He last spoke to her when she was working as Chicago school CEO. The two have not talked since she resigned, was indicted by a grand jury, and ultimately admitted to one count of wire fraud. They have exchanged text messages, Hite said.
"It was mostly, 'Sorry you're having to go through this,' " Hite said.
Authorities say Byrd-Bennett used her office to steer over $20 million in contracts to two education consultants she had previously worked with.
Byrd-Bennett, federal prosecutors said in court documents, "sold her integrity and sold out the students of the Chicago Public Schools, and then she worked to enrich herself and her co-schemers at the expense of CPS, its students, its teachers, its administrators, and the City of Chicago."
Byrd-Bennett's attorneys say she became "deaf and blind to the wrong she was committing."
"Nothing we offer on Barbara's behalf is intended to downplay her wrongdoing, misdirect the court's focus, or encourage anything other than a fair sentence, which Barbara knows will and should result in incarceration," her attorneys wrote in a presentencing memo.