* Latino power brokers have transformed the United Neighborhood Organization into a political force to be reckoned with. The group has obtained millions for its charter schools and even got around procurement law by avoiding blind bidding. As a result, insider deals have apparently proliferated…
A $98 million state grant — approved by the Illinois Legislature in 2009 and believed to be the nation’s largest government investment in charter schools to date — funded the construction of Soccer Academy Elementary and other new schools built by UNO.
More than one-fifth of the taxpayer money spent on the Soccer Academy Elementary project went to four contractors owned by family members of UNO’s political allies and a top executive of the group, records show:
◆ A company owned by a brother of Miguel d’Escoto , UNO’s senior vice president of operations, was paid more than $600,000 as the “owner’s representative” for the project.
◆ Another d’Escoto brother landed a $4.4 million contract that included installing the school’s windows and distinctive metal exterior panels.
◆ State grant money that was used to guard the construction site went to a security firm run by two brothers of state Rep. Edward Acevedo, a Chicago Democrat who voted to approve the UNO grant.
◆ Two deals for plumbing work went to the sister of Victor Reyes , a lobbyist who helped UNO obtain the grant money to build the school. UNO also hired the janitorial service it operates, paying it more than $31,000 to clean up the Soccer Academy site before classes began. […]
◆ D’Escoto Inc., owned by Federico “Fred” d’Escoto, whose brother Miguel d’Escoto holds the second-ranking post with UNO and was the city of Chicago’s transportation commissioner under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. D’Escoto Inc. has been paid more than $1.5 million so far, mainly for overseeing construction management on all of UNO’s state-funded projects. Miguel d’Escoto’s son, Miguel T. d’Escoto, works for d’Escoto Inc.
UNO hired d’Escoto Inc. without seeking other bids, Rangel says, because the firm provided the sort of services that government agencies often contract for based on merit rather than price alone. “I trust that they are looking out for our interests,” he says. “I’ve known the d’Escotos for decades. Fred’s reputation is impeccable.”
◆ Reflection Window Co., owned by Rodrigo d’Escoto — another brother of Miguel d’Escoto. It stands to make nearly $10 million for work on all of the UNO schools built with the grant money. Reflection was paid about $6.7 million for work on the Soccer Academy Elementary and Galewood schools, and it has a contract for about $3.1 million for work on the high school that’s under construction.
◆ Aguila Security, which was run by Manuel Acevedo and Joe Acevedo — brothers of state lawmaker and longtime UNO ally Edward Acevedo — during the time the company provided “site security” for UNO on the Soccer Academy Elementary project.
◆ Toltec Plumbing, owned by Virginia Reyes, whose brother Victor Reyes was a top mayoral aide during the Daley administration and also headed the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization. Victor Reyes was UNO’s lobbyist when it landed the 2009 grant, and his law firm is doing zoning work for UNO that will be paid for out of the state grant money, according to Rangel.
◆ Windy City Electric, which has ties to Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and was banned from working on City Hall contracts after city officials determined that brothers Anthony and John McMahon operated the company in their wives’ names to obtain millions of dollars from city contracts set aside for businesses owned and operated by women. Windy City was paid $1.67 million for work on the Soccer Academy Elementary’s construction.
Anthony McMahon is a top precinct captain for Burke, a longtime UNO backer whose Southwest Side ward is home to five of the charter network’s schools. Burke’s daughter-in-law has worked for UNO since 2009.
In 2010, Rangel endorsed Burke’s brother, state Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago), when he narrowly won a Democratic primary fight against a Hispanic challenger.
◆ The law firm of Chico & Nunes, headed by attorney Gery Chico, who has done zoning work for UNO and been paid with money from the state grant.
◆ UNO JaMS, a not-for-profit “social enterprise” initiative of UNO that provides janitorial services at its charter schools.
* But there could be a problem…
UNO’s grant agreement requires it to “immediately notify the department in writing of any actual or potential conflicts of interest, as well as any actions that create or which appear to create a conflict of interest,” spokeswoman Sandra M. Jones says. The state “has no record of receiving such notifications. We are currently reviewing the matter. We take our oversight of taxpayer-funded programs very seriously. If it is found that a grantee has used funds incorrectly, we will take steps to address it.”
* Mark Brown…
He also reported that UNO contractors donated at least $51,000 to [Silvana Tabares] in her successful state representative campaign, and UNO employees even gathered most of the signatures on her nominating petitions.
What’s wrong with any of that?
Well, most fundamentally, I don’t think the purpose of creating charter schools was to establish new political fiefdoms with their own bases of patronage — whether of the classic or pinstripe variety.
I’m not knocking the UNO schools. They operate in difficult neighborhoods and have a reputation for delivering a better education than many of the other charters.
But we need to extract the charter operators from this type of political activity before it becomes the norm.
As it stands now, I don’t think any other charter operators are nearly as far along in their political entanglements as UNO.
I love Mark Brown, but there’s a whole bunch of super-rich Chicagoans involved with charter schools who are also pumping bigtime money into political campaigns.
* From today’s Sun-Times…
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.”
* Also, as I’ve told you before, House Speaker Michael Madigan was pushing hard for even more money for UNO last month. Greg Hinz had some details about how hard Madigan was working…
But, in checking around, I hear that the guy who really pushed the proposed $35 million grant was House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose district has turned overwhelmingly Latino in recent years and who probably could use one of those new UNO schools in his district. Mr. Madigan — his spokesman did not return calls — was so hot for the grant that he actually tried to add it to some other bills, multiple reliable Springfield sources say.
Mr. Rangel confirms that the money “quite possibly” would have gone for work in Mr. Madigan’s district, where schools are “severely overcrowded.” And guess where that new soccer high school is? At the north end of Mr. Madigan’s legislative district, 5050 S. St. Louis Ave.
That cash was omitted from the supplemental approp bill which passed this week. There’s just too much heat on UNO right now.