Accusations that the settlement given to ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford was "hush money" are flat-out wrong, agency Chairman Brad O'Halloran said in an interview Tuesday.
Speaking out for the first time about Clifford's departure and controversial severance package, O'Halloran stressed the money was intended to avoid a lawsuit and was not an attempt to silence Clifford regarding political hiring.
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O'Halloran said Metra board directors asked the Office of the Executive Inspector General to investigate charges of political patronage that Clifford raised after being told by a board member his contract might not be renewed back in March.
Clifford accused his bosses at that time of retaliating for "refusing to go along with politically motivated patronage requests," O'Halloran said, adding "it appeared to me Mr. Clifford had not turned over (his concerns) to the proper authorities."
"If we intended to deep-six this, we would have swept it under the rug," O'Halloran told the Daily Herald. "I have never talked to staff or anyone in HR or the executive director about any individual for a job."
Metra also hired a former U.S. attorney to look into any wrongdoing and found "nothing of substance," O'Halloran said.
Clifford did not respond to a request for comment.
Metra directors authorized a $442,000 severance deal with Clifford on June 21, but provisos in the agreement could allow him to receive as much as $749,000 if he doesn't find another job within a specified time.
Clifford enjoyed a honeymoon period at Metra initially, arriving after the suicide of former CEO Phil Pagano, who was being investigated for swindling the agency out of about $475,000 in unauthorized pay.
Board members were criticized for being asleep at the switch under Pagano, but Clifford misinterpreted certain reforms -- approving hires over a certain level, for example -- as a power grab, O'Halloran said.
"Despite our history, Mr. Clifford believed the board's oversight was overreaching," O'Halloran said.
In recent months, some Metra directors disagreed with Clifford over policy issues, faulting him for delays instituting a joint fare system with the CTA and Pace, confusion over Wi-Fi on trains and declining ridership.
O'Halloran's revelations give insight into a toxic situation at Metra after Clifford's bombshell in March. "Everything came to a complete standstill," O'Halloran said. "It became a leadership paralysis at the top of the agency."
Now, "we're putting things on the front burner, not the back burner, while we hash out a severance agreement," he said.
O'Halloran said he will ask the board to reverse Clifford's recommendation to raise 10-ride fares because "customers hate it. Ridership is down 18 percent, revenues are down 8 percent in the six months (since it took effect). We may be facing a shortfall because of it."
Both Clifford and Metra directors have kept quiet about the severance decision, citing a gag order in the pact. O'Halloran said he was explaining his vote because of a Regional Transportation Authority meeting today where he will be answering questions about the severance and also to address jabs about "hush money" in the media.
Advice from their attorney and a judge who was mediating the dispute led officials to conclude a lawsuit was inevitable and the court costs would outweigh the severance package, O'Halloran said.
Board member Jack Schaffer of Cary, however, who voted "no," has blamed O'Halloran for pushing the CEO out.
O'Halloran, an Orland Park village trustee who became chairman in late 2012, said he had no "preconceived" ideas about Clifford.
But he acknowledged his relationship with Clifford in the last few months has been "frosty."