No matter which version you believe, Metra's latest flap reveals how messed up the agency has become.
Former CEO Alex Clifford, departing with a golden parachute of up to $718,000, paints it as a microcosm of the kind of backroom deals and pay-to-play politics that keep Illinois in a stranglehold.
On Wednesday, Clifford -- recruited from Los Angeles in 2011 after predecessor Phil Pagano's suicide amid a corruption investigation -- skewered the commuter rail agency during testimony before the Regional Transportation Authority.
Among his claims:
• Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan tried to influence hiring and lobbied for a raise for then-Metra employee and Madigan donor Patrick Ward. Clifford says his objection angered Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran, who later responded he needed a meeting with Madigan when Clifford asked about his own contract.
• O'Halloran pushed Clifford to fire or demote two top employees, including General Counsel Terry Barnett, whose legal opinion backed Clifford's opposition to pressuring a low bidder to reallocate minority contracts to get more African-American participation. Clifford says while he was absent to have treatment for thyroid cancer, Metra Director Larry Huggins intervened anyway.
And it goes on, including allegations that O'Halloran and Huggins sought preference for connected contractors, which both deny.
O'Halloran, also testifying Wednesday, called Clifford's claims "a whole lot of hooey" aimed at negotiating a lucrative exit, though Madigan's office has acknowledged trying to get Ward a raise.
Whichever version you believe, the portrait of a dysfunctional, overly political Metra leadership is impossible to ignore. How, then, to fix it? O'Halloran should, at the very least, take a leave from the chairmanship until an impartial investigation produces findings. That investigation appears to be largely in the hands of the Office of the Executive Inspector General, given that the top lawyer in the state, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is Mike Madigan's daughter.
And the RTA? The agency that oversees Metra but avoided getting involved in the scandal for months until the flap over Clifford's severance package grew too big to ignore?
Its deputy executive director is Jordan Matyas, Mike Madigan's son-in-law. Obviously, there are too many Madigans here, something for voters to keep in mind in next year's election. Along with that, a recent proposal to merge RTA with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning deserves a very close look. The current structure at Metra and RTA is so political and intertwined, it's hard to avoid creating a breeding ground for corruption. We've seen years of evidence that Metra leaders can't resist that pull, and that the RTA won't effectively intervene. It's time to try something new.