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Ald. Danny Solis, ex-chief of UNO, calls insider charter-school deals ‘improper’

Alderman Danny Solis during Chicago City Council meeting Wednesday February 13 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Alderman Danny Solis during Chicago City Council meeting, Wednesday, February 13, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 15, 2013 1:27PM

Ald. Danny Solis (25th) — a co-founder and former head of the United Neighborhood Organization — said Wednesday he thinks it was “improper, at the very least,” for the politically influential organization to use a $98 million state school grant to hire contractors with close ties to the leadership of UNO’s charter-school network.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that UNO’s insider deals included giving contracts paid for by the state grant to companies owned by two brothers of Miguel d’Escoto, the group’s No. 2 executive until he resigned Tuesday from his $200,000-a-year post as senior vice president of operations in the fallout from that revelation.

The alderman said he welcomed the news of d’Escoto’s resignation.

“This is the kind of thing that had to happen to show the public and show the legislators that voted on this contract that they are about amending their ways,” Solis said. “It recognizes there is something, at the very least, improper.”

Speaking outside of Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Solis said he was “disappointed” to read of the insider deals.

Juan Rangel, UNO’s chief executive officer, who co-chaired Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign, declined to comment Wednesday.

Previously, Rangel has said that the organization — which operates 13 taxpayer-supported charter schools with 6,500 students in Chicago and plans to build and open more — did not break any law and noted that the state program under which it got the $98 million grant did not require the same sort of public bidding of contracts, with the contract going to the low bidder, that is required for buildings built for the Chicago Public Schools system and other arms of city government for which construction is overseen by the Public Building Commission of Chicago. Rangel is on the board of the Public Building Commission.

Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, said Tuesday he backs UNO in taking that stance.

“Nothing being reported means they’ve done anything illegal or improper,” O’Connor said. “It might sound crude, but it’s kind of like picking your nose in public. It looks bad. It’s not classy. But it’s not illegal.”

O’Connor also suggested it would be best for UNO to not switch to a sealed-bid process, saying it would hamper the charter-school operator.

“I’m not sure they will obligate themselves to the more elaborate and sometimes more costly ways government must do business,” O’Connor said. “Private businesses can get things done quicker and cheaper because they don’t have to jump through all of the hoops.”

Solis, though, said it appeared that UNO violated a conflict-of-interest clause in its state grant contract.

“If I put myself in the shoes of Joe Citizen, and I see what I saw in your report, there’s no doubt in my mind that’s a conflict of interest,” Solis said. “Now, if there is some legal technicality that says it isn’t — still, it’s important that the public have confidence in how UNO is spending the money they get from the public.”

UNO was awarded the $98 million grant in 2009 to expand its network of charter schools. It has used the money to build two schools, finish a third and start work on a high school under construction on the Southwest Side.

Other contractors on UNO prjects that were funded by the state grant included the sister of UNO lobbyist Victor Reyes and the brothers of state Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago), the Sun-Times has reported.

Solis said he was unaware of the group’s contracting practices before the newspaper’s report.

“That really concerned me,” said Solis, who left UNO to take a seat on the City Council in 1996. “I definitely was disappointed.”

In 1998, UNO began its transformation from a community activist organization to charter-school operator.

Phil Mullins, a Solis friend since childhood, is UNO’s chief operating officer.

In addition to the public funding through the state grant, UNO gets tens of millions of dollars a year from the Chicago school system, as well as federal funding for schools with a high percentage of low-income students.

Another alderman with ties to UNO also expressed concern Wednesday about the contracts it gave to companies with ties to the organization and its officials.

“They need to get back to the core of what UNO was founded for, which was to empower the Hispanic community as a whole — not to empower a few in the Hispanic community,” said Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), an alumnus of an UNO program to develop Hispanic community leaders.

Moreno said that whether UNO’s actions met its obligations under its state grant was “not the point”, and he welcomed Rangel’s earlier vow to conduct a thorough internal review.

“They need to look at all their contractual practices to make sure they are living up not only to the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law in terms of conflict of interest,” Moreno said.

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