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Brown: UNO’s Juan Rangel takes ‘full responsibility’ but not full penalty

Updated: June 30, 2013 6:49AM

A whole lot of people have a whole lot invested in making sure the United Neighborhood Organization and its CEO Juan Rangel survive the scandal over insider dealings in its handling of a $98 million school construction grant.

From the politicians who benefit from Rangel’s organizing skills to the charter school community that doesn’t need the negative publicity, all are anxious to put UNO’s problems in the rear view mirror.

It’s just a little hard for me to see how they can pretend everything is fixed by instituting a bunch of structural changes and picking new directors while leaving in charge the guy who has been the driving force in the entire operation.

Up until Tuesday, Rangel had not only steadfastly defended insider contracting practices under his watch at the taxpayer-supported private agency, he’d practically boasted about it.

Hiring connected companies and employees was simply part of UNO’s mission to empower the Latino community, no different than what other ethnic groups did on the road to building power, Rangel said.

Imagine my surprise then Tuesday when Rangel not only apologized for the contracting scandal that has jeopardized state funding for UNO’s charter school construction program, he left an implication it was somebody else’s fault.

“For UNO to get into a business relationship with family members is simply not appropriate. It smacks of nepotism,” Rangel said, referring to $8.5 million in state funds paid to companies owned by brothers of Miguel d’Escoto, a top UNO executive who resigned after the payments were disclosed by the Sun-Times.

“I am here today to apologize,” Rangel said at a news conference to announce the moves. “I have failed.”

He said he had “failed to exercise proper oversight . . . For these failures, I am sorry, and I take full responsibility.”

I’m glad Rangel is taking responsibility, which certainly ought to accompany the $250,000 salary he plans to keep, but I’d like to clear up any inference d’Escoto was some sort of renegade employee.

Rangel exercises complete oversight over everything at UNO. He’s a hands-on guy.

And it’s not as if the d’Escoto contracts were an aberration. UNO business was also directed to a security firm run by brothers of state Rep. Edward Acevedo and a plumbing business owned by the sister of Victor Reyes, a lobbyist who used to run the Hispanic Democratic Organization.

Both Acevedo and Reyes are political allies of Rangel, who has used his UNO ties to be a powerful force, especially in state legislative races on the Southwest Side. Rangel wasn’t bashful about using the school’s contractors to raise political funds.

Part of Rangel’s influence comes from his alliances with traditional Chicago Democratic Machine powerhouses such as House Speaker Michael Madigan and Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (who also had a buddy who landed a nice piece of UNO business.) In addition, Rangel has had the ear of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose campaign he co-chaired.

I ran into Rangel last year at the Democratic National Convention, where he was an honored guest, and enjoyed talking with him. He’s a brilliant political tactician who came out of nowhere to build the city’s most influential Latino organization. Every time I’ve knocked heads with him on political matters, his candidate has won, which leads me to believe he knows his community.

But I don’t believe he’s just discovered nepotism in his organization and suddenly realized that it is frowned upon. At best, he’s only learned that you can’t get away with quite so much in the current political climate as did some of his role models on their way up.

Charter schools weren’t intended to be a new source of jobs and contracting patronage for the politically connected, but that’s clearly been part of the plan from the start with UNO’s Charter School Network.

The issue now is whether the changes UNO announced Tuesday will be enough to convince Gov. Pat Quinn to resume state funding for construction of its high school on the Southwest Side. Quinn, who signed the legislation that awarded UNO the $98 million, stopped the payments with tens of millions still owed in response to a Sun-Times’ report on UNO’s insider dealings.

At least two individuals say UNO needs to go further to clean house.

Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, and Rey Lopez-Calderson, executive director of Common Cause-Illinois, argued Rangel should resign.

Puente said Rangel has shown a “history of consistent lapses in judgment” that have “placed a black mark on the Latino community and the charter school community.”

As a good politician, Rangel should have known that schools and politics are a lethal mix.

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