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Mayor says the UNO should be “held accountable” for contract cronyism

Updated: March 10, 2013 6:26AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday the United Neighborhood Organization should be “held accountable” for contract cronyism with a $98 million state grant believed to be the nation’s largest government investment in charter schools.

Emanuel was clearly troubled by the Chicago Sun-Times disclosure that more than one-fifth of the $25 million in taxpayer money spent on the UNO Soccer Academy Elementary Charter School went to four contractors owned by family members of UNO’s political allies and a top executive of the group.

The fact that Emanuel is a huge proponent of charter schools and that UNO CEO Juan Rangel is the mayor’s former campaign co-chairman and a mayoral appointee to the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission adds to the political embarrassment.

“I know what the United Neighborhood Organization does — both as a neighborhood group and as an education group. And I know they’re gonna have to hold themselves accountable because I believe in being held accountable to the public,” the mayor said. “They’re getting public resources. The people [who] are the proper people will look into it and be held accountable so dollars aren’t misspent.”

Pressed on whether UNO still enjoys his confidence, Emanuel said, “On their educational mission, yes, and that they do it in the right way.”

Rangel could not be reached for comment on the mayor’s remarks.

Earlier this week, the Sun-Times quoted Rangel as saying that empowering Hispanic-owned contractors has long been at the heart of UNO’s mission and that all of the contractors hired have “proven themselves.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, denied that UNO’s cozy contracting reflects poorly on the mayor.

“I don’t think the mayor of Chicago gets held accountable for the actions of not-for-profits that run charter schools and neighborhood organizations and do a lot of good work, but may have some issues in how they do some of this stuff,” O’Connor said.

“The head of UNO has been in Chicago and active in government and politics and social movements for decades. He didn’t get brought to the dance by the mayor. That individual signed on to help the mayor. It wasn’t that the mayor brought this stranger into Chicago,” O’Connor said.

But he said, “The mayor was stating what is factual and basically is part of his conviction: If you have public monies, if you are part of a public charter, then you have to be accountable to the citizens for what you do. If there’s something wrong, they obviously have to be held accountable. What they need to do is have a process that is open and fair so that people can determine whether or not it’s appropriate. Based on what we’re hearing, there are questions.”

The Sun-Times Watchdogs reported that UNO’s state grant, awarded by the General Assembly in 2009, allows it to avoid the sealed-bid contracting process required of districts receiving taxpayer dollars through the state’s main program for funding school construction.

That has set the stage for many contracts to go to companies with family or political ties to an organization that includes some of the same players once at the center of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which dissolved because of the political hiring scandal in former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

The Sun-Times reported that UNO has given millions of dollars in construction contracts to companies owned by the brothers of its senior vice president of operations, Miguel d’Escoto. Other contracts went to the plumbing business owned by the sister of former HDO chieftain Victor Reyes, who helped UNO lobby for the school construction grant, and another to a security company run by the brothers of state Rep. Edward Acevedo, another HDO ally.

Last week, after fielding questions about UNO from the Sun-Times, a spokeswoman for the state said officials would review the charter operator’s contracting practices.

There is a conflict-of-interest restriction in UNO’s grant agreement with the state, the spokeswoman noted.

The newspaper also reported that UNO contractors donated at least $51,000 to Silvana Tabares in her successful state representative campaign last year and that UNO employees gathered most of the signatures on Tabares’ nominating petitions.

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