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Editorial: A do-over on accountability for UNO charter-school contracting

Updated: March 12, 2013 6:17AM

The United Neighborhood Organization seems to have forgotten that it pays its bills with public dollars.

That’s the most charitable conclusion to be reached from a recent Sun-Times investigation that revealed how millions of dollars the group received from the state to build charter schools went to four contractors owned by family members of UNO’s political allies and a top UNO executive.

UNO is a Hispanic community group backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. UNO runs 13 public charter schools in the city, its breakneck growth accelerated by an unprecedented 2009 grant by the state Legislature of $98 million to build new school buildings.

UNO’s leader, Juan Rangel, defended the contracts in a Sun-Times story last week, saying the contractors are proven and letting the contracts to Hispanic-owned businesses advances his group’s mission of Hispanic empowerment.

There’s one huge problem: when taxpayer dollars are involved, the public expects a semblance — or at least the appearance — of fairness. UNO has failed to jump over that low bar. Under the state grant rules, UNO is required to notify the state of any conflict of interest or the appearance of one. The state says that failed to happen and now is investigating. Emanuel on Thursday said that UNO should be “held accountable.”

By Sunday, Rangel had changed his tune. In a statement, he said UNO’s actions were legal but noted that “some of our processes are outdated,” saying: “We can do better.” UNO will review its procurement processes, resulting in new policies within 45 days. Notably, Rangel said UNO would cut off ties to d’Escoto Inc., a construction management firm, until the review is complete.

D’Escoto is owned by the brother of an UNO executive and one of the four UNO-connected firms that took home more than one-fifth of dollars spent to build a $25 million UNO school. UNO’s contractors, including d’Escoto Inc., also made substantial campaign donations to help elect an UNO ally to the Legislature last year.

State lawmakers happily set UNO on this path. Instead of granting UNO the $98 million through its normal school construction process, the state just doled out the money. Rangel said some contractors were chosen after reviewing multiple bids, but others were not. And none had sealed bids, which makes it harder to steer contracts.

Rangel on Sunday said UNO will “remain vigilant” about how it spends public dollars.

That’s a promise the public expects UNO to keep — even when no one is watching.

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