Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran says he never interfered with hiring at the agency -- a statement ex-CEO Alex Clifford contradicts in an April 3 memo that accuses the chairman of ordering him to fire two top administrators in January.
But all specifics about the two -- Metra's chief lawyer and the head of the procurement department -- were redacted from the April 3 memo released to lawmakers trying to get to the bottom of the growing scandal.
The document given to members of the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee keeps secret the titles and names of retired general counsel Theresa Barnett, who advised Clifford on some disputed contracts, and procurement chief Paul Kisielius. In fact, it's difficult to tell from the redacted version how many employees are involved.
Metra officials also took out all references to legal advice given by Barnett about the controversial Englewood flyover project, a railroad bridge on the South Side.
A full version of the April 3 memo was obtained by the Daily Herald.
Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said Monday the "names were redacted for privacy reasons and other redactions were made due to attorney-client privilege." A statement by O'Halloran Friday stands in stark contrast to Clifford's account.
"I have never intervened with Metra's staff regarding any jobs or contracts," O'Halloran said. "I deny Mr. Clifford's allegations but out of an abundance of caution, immediately forwarded all of his claims to the (Office of the Executive Inspector General)."
Reached Monday, O'Halloran said in an email: "I only voiced concerns about certain decisions I had witnessed as a board member. I never said to fire anyone and it was not my place to do so. I feel very badly that any employee's performance past or present is being aired in the media and fought to not allow it."
Kisielius and Barnett, who recently retired, did not return requests for comment.
Metra has been under fire since awarding an up to $718,000 separation agreement to Clifford June 21.
Clifford claims O'Halloran and former Chairman and Director Larry Huggins wanted him out because he rejected pressure from politicians including Speaker Michael Madigan over patronage hiring and contracts.
Huggins has also denied the allegations and O'Halloran has countered that Clifford raised ethical qualms only when his contract was up for renewal.
In the full version of the April 3 memo, Clifford states, "Mr. O'Halloran told me on Jan. 11, 2013, that General Counsel Terry Barnett and Paul Kisielius are incompetent, that he wanted a new general counsel and that I should discharge Mr. Kisielius."
The alleged encounter occurred just two months after O'Halloran became chairman. Clifford told O'Halloran he disagreed with the firing request.
Legal expert Shawn Collins, who is not involved in the case, said attorney-client privilege allows Metra to withhold whatever it wants from the memo. But he considers it unusual to disclose a redacted version. "Usually, it's 100 percent or nothing," he explained.
"I think the public has a very strong case that nothing inside the memo should be secret. It's wrong if they're only revealing what the agency thinks will help the agency," said Collins, a Naperville attorney.
Metra also removed numerous references by Clifford about following legal advice regarding the Englewood flyover. A crowd of South Side congressmen and neighborhood residents packed Metra's boardroom in May 2012, taking directors to task over the lack of black contractors hired for the project.
Huggins, a black construction executive, intervened to reach a compromise, but it became a bone of contention between Clifford and the board of directors. Huggins asked the CEO to terminate the contract with the prime contractor or pressure him to involve more African-American firms, Clifford stated.
The following sentences were deleted from his memo.
"I sought an opinion from Metra's general counsel (Barnett)," Clifford wrote. "Based on that opinion, I told Mr. Huggins that I could not do what he requested. The opinion was clear that Metra could not lawfully pressure the low bidder to alter its allocation of (disadvantaged business enterprise) subcontracts to favor one disadvantaged group."
Huggins, who grew up in Englewood, said in a statement Friday that because the project was in an African-American community, local congressmen and residents "were justifiably upset over the lack of community representation in Clifford's original construction plans."
Clifford is scheduled to appear in person to answer questions from the Regional Transportation Authority board Wednesday morning, which is auditing the separation agreement.