The Chicago Sun-Times reported the results of its battle to gain access to the financial records of the UNO charter chain. UNO fought to keep its records secret, claiming they were a “private” organization. What the newspaper discovered when it won was a spending spree on the taxpayers’ dime–er, make that hundreds of millions.

The CEO of UNO, Juan Rangel, was politically powerful: he served as co-chair of Rahm Emanuel’s first mayoral campaign. Rangel got a grant of $98 million from the state to build more charter schools. He was compelled to resign when news broke that millions in contracts from the state grant were awarded to allies of Rangel.

But the new revelations show a pattern of profligate spending by the organization. It also shows how charters used taxpayer money to buy political favors.

Dan Mihalapoulos writes:

“Even as they ran a network of charter schools for thousands of students in low-income neighborhoods across Chicago, United Neighborhood Organization leader Juan Rangel and other UNO officials were piling up big bills at fancy restaurants and for travel on the taxpayers’ dime, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

“In the year before a contracting scandal led to Rangel’s forced resignation, the clout-heavy Hispanic community organization and charter-school operator spent more than $60,000 for restaurants on his American Express “business platinum” card, according to the records, which UNO fought for nearly three years to keep secret.

“The spending spree included $1,000-or-higher tabs at Gene & Georgetti, Carmichaels, Vivo Chicago, Rosebud Prime, the East Bank Club, Carnivale, a downtown hotel’s rooftop bar and Soldier Field’s concessions during a soccer game featuring Mexico’s men’s national team.

“And UNO spent more than $60,000 a year on travel in 2010 and 2011, the internal records show. Rangel alone flew out of town 31 times in four years.

“In 2010, Rangel traveled at the organization’s expense to Managua, Nicaragua, the records show. Rangel and two aides, Miguel d’Escoto and Francisco “Pancho” d’Escoto, met during that trip with the d’Escotos’ uncle, a former diplomat advising them on possible expansion.

“Rangel’s and UNO’s fortunes took a downturn after the Sun-Times reported in February 2013 that the organization paid millions of dollars from a $98 million state school-construction grant to companies owned by two brothers of Miguel d’Escoto, who was Rangel’s top deputy, and to other contractors with close ties to the group.

“As federal and state authorities began investigating, the newly obtained records show, UNO officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to contain the scandal, which cost the organization millions of dollars in state funding and resulted in a federal consent decree requiring outside oversight of the group’s contracting practices.

“UNO has paid more than $962,000 since the start of 2013 to the firm of Mary Patricia Burns, who became the group’s primary lawyer shortly after the scandal broke.

“Her law firm, Burke Burns & Pinelli Ltd., has been a major campaign contributor to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. The state Democratic Party boss from the Southwest Side sponsored UNO’s state grant — which was the biggest government subsidy given to charter schools in the country. Burns didn’t return calls seeking comment.

“The organization also paid more than $307,000 to retired federal judge Wayne Andersen and others who aided him in an investigation of UNO’s contracting practices.

“The spending took place as UNO was operating a government-funded charter schools serving about 8,000 predominantly Hispanic students, largely from low-income families. About 96 percent of students at UNO’s 16 campuses qualify for free or reduced lunches, records show.

“Despite being almost entirely government-funded, UNO leaders fought to keep the spending records secret, arguing that they didn’t have to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act because UNO is a private organization. But they ultimately released the records in a recent legal settlement with the Sun-Times.

“Since UNO founded the charter-school chain in 1998, the Chicago Public Schools system has given the privately run schools hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, in addition to the state funding the organization got for school construction. Until less than a year ago, the UNO Charter School Network — which is separately incorporated — passed along much of the CPS funding to UNO, which managed the schools.”