When UNO textbook money gets blown on steak and travel

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Former UNO charter schools CEO Juan Rangel in 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Here’s a word problem for you, kids:

Juan spends $60,000 a year in restaurants. How much on average is Juan spending in restaurants each month?

Did you get $5,000 a month? Correct!

And how much is Juan spending in restaurants each week?

Did you get $1,153.85? Correct again!

And how much is Juan completely blowing your hard-working mom and dad’s tax dollars?

A lot, kids, a lot.

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Three years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times revealed how Juan Rangel’s United Neighborhood Organization, which ran a charter school network, mishandled millions of dollars in public money when it handed big construction contracts to two brothers of a top UNO officer.

Those Sun-Times stories, by Dan Mihalopoulos, led to Rangel’s forced departure from UNO and, just last year, to UNO’s exit from the charter school business.

Now additional UNO records obtained by the Sun-Times, after a three-year freedom-of-information fight, reveal what probably should surprise no one: The same charter school operator that steered contracts to favored relatives also wasted public money in other ways, mostly by living the good life on the taxpayer’s dime.

And a few folks with ties to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, UNO’s sugar daddy in Springfield, got cut in, too. Maybe this is that “Chicago way” we keep hearing about. Madigan sponsored UNO’s original state grant.

In 2012, the year before he resigned, Rangel and a handful of top assistants used his American Express business platinum card to spend more than $60,000 in restaurants, Mihalopoulos reported Sunday. Rangel and the others racked up tabs of $1,000 or more in restaurants such as Gene & Georgetti, Carmichaels and Rosebud Prime.

Rangel and UNO also spent more than $60,000 a year on travel in 2010 and 2011, and Rangel alone flew out of town 31 times in four years.

The questionable spending piled up in one-shot ways, as well. UNO spent nearly $150,000 for the grand opening of a new school in 2012. It spent $11,600 in 2011 for 42 buses to bring parents of UNO students to a rally for increased public funding of charter schools. Yes, UNO burned through money to lobby for money.

And on three notable occasions when UNO wrote checks for outside help, there was one degree of separation from Madigan.

In 2009, when successfully seeking a state grant, UNO employed a lobbying firm, The Roosevelt Group, in which one principal was former Madigan aide Mike Noonan.

In 2013, when the UNO scandal broke, the charter school operator hired lawyer Mary Patricia Burns of the firm Burke Burns & Pinelli Ltd., a major campaign contributor to Madigan. Since then, UNO has paid the firm more than $962,000.

Since 2013, UNO has paid more than $72,000 to Mesirow Insurance Services Inc., which employs Madigan’s son Andrew.

The fact that we can even tell you all this now, by the way, is a victory for transparency in government. It took legal action by the Sun-Times, resulting in a settlement, to get UNO to release these records. This is how it should always be — minus the three-year fight. The books of any entity that relies largely on public funds should be open and transparent.

There is a cost to doing business. Everybody gets that. Not every suspect expense by UNO was necessarily inappropriate. But UNO took on a big job that allowed for no waste or extravagance — giving some 8,000 Chicago kids, mostly Hispanic and almost all lower income, a quality education so they could move up in the world.

Every dollar UNO spent on steak and wine and travel was a dollar not spent on textbooks, computers and teachers.

One last word problem, kids:

How much steak did Juan really need?

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