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updated: 7/29/2013 5:44 AM

Should Metra's chair go? Appointing officials weigh in

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  • Daily Herald File Photo The Metra board of directors is experiencing déjà vu after a second scandal involving allegations of corruption.

      Daily Herald File Photo The Metra board of directors is experiencing déjà vu after a second scandal involving allegations of corruption.

 
 

One good thing about Metra's implosion: Voters will be able to tell board directors loud and clear what they think of the costly separation agreement for ex-CEO Alex Clifford and allegations of misconduct.

Oh wait, they can't. At least not at the polls.

Voters have no say in who winds up on the Metra board. Instead, an overly complicated formula gives the chairmen of six counties, the Chicago mayor and suburban Cook County commissioners that power.

So that's why I'm asking the people who appointed the Metra board what they think about the latest corruption scandal at the beleaguered agency.

In a nutshell, no one's happy with the state of affairs but neither are they willing to throw their own appointees under the bus -- yet.

"I'm not the one doing the investigation and I don't want to make a rush to judgment," McHenry County Chairman Tina Hill commented.

"We need to be in full command of the facts and there's been a lot of political theater," Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawler said.

"I understand the (public's) frustration ... I'm unhappy with the whole situation myself," DuPage Chairman Dan Cronin said.

"It's a really messy situation and a black eye on government," said Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider of Bartlett.

To recap -- Clifford left Metra with a bang in June. Since then, a memo from Clifford has surfaced accusing Chairman Brad O'Halloran and Larry Huggins of condoning political patronage requests from Speaker Michael Madigan involving a raise for a contributor and a promotion.

Clifford also lambasted the two men for conflict of interest over certain contracts and Huggins for intervening in the Englewood Flyover bridge project against the advice of Metra's lawyers.

Now some lawmakers want the Metra board and O'Halloran's head on a platter, two state inspector generals are investigating and the Regional Transportation Authority's sniping that the agency hid information from them.

Cronin accepted Metra Chairman Carole Doris' resignation in 2011 after CEO Phil Pagano killed himself in 2010 amid a probe into his swindling of $475,000. At the time, the board was harshly criticized for mismanagement.

Now, "I understand a lot of people are asking for all the board members to step down -- it's standard operating procedure when it comes to these things," Cronin said. "It's a tough situation but I think it makes sense to investigate it, turn it over to a credible third party and get to the bottom of it -- find out if there was any quid pro quo.

"To have all these (board directors) walk away -- I don't know if that's the answer."

But an internal investigation at Metra isn't a slam dunk. The agency already has spent about $52,000 for former assistant U.S. attorney Rodger Heaton to review Clifford's allegations. Heaton apparently found no wrongdoing, although the agency hasn't released his report.

O'Halloran wanted to bring in renowned former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins for a second opinion (at a cost of up to $150,000), but plans for a vote July 17 fizzled after Collins withdrew. Now, it's possible another option could be former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, another "untouchable" who led the legendary Operation Greylord probe into judicial corruption in Cook County.

Cronin thinks it makes sense to hire a third party to take up where Heaton left off, but not everyone agrees, indicating O'Halloran may have a revolt on his hands.

"It doesn't make sense to me ... how many assistant U.S. attorneys do they need to hire to look into things?" asked Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston.

Suffredin backs his Metra appointee, William Widmer, but thinks O'Halloran should consider resigning.

"He's only been there for a short time and they've gotten into a total mess," Suffredin said. "Right now Metra is the standard for bad government in Illinois."

Lawlor's appointee, Norman Carlson, is a newbie to Metra. But as a railroad expert, he hit the ground running and played a role in the mediation over Clifford's contract, which has been called both "hush money" and a "golden parachute."

Lawlor said, "I take any allegations related to unethical conduct very seriously and look forward to the results of the RTA audit and the Executive Inspector General review. If you look at the past several years, there's been a series of rash decisions at Metra following the Pagano scandal."

Cook County Commissioner Liz Doody Gorman appointed the much-maligned O'Halloran, who also is a campaign contributor. Since 2010, O'Halloran, an Orland Park trustee, donated $1,500 toward Gorman's re-election individually and through his campaign committee. according to state records.

"I support comprehensive reforms and I support the call for an independent review with no bias," Gorman of Orland Park said.

Asked if O'Halloran or other directors should resign, she said, "I don't want to speculate or jump to conclusions until all the facts and information are compiled. Think how chaotic it would be if everyone on the board resigned. We don't want a knee-jerk reaction."

Meanwhile, Kane County Chairman Chris Lauzen said the Metra saga wasn't his first priority. But he touched on the Chicago-suburban divide that's an undercurrent with any transit issue in the metropolitan region.

"My concern is that this controversy is not used by some folks to further centralize political decision-making in Chicago. Metra serves a lot of folks out in the collar counties," Lauzen said.

Anyone else? Well, political pro Mayor Rahm Emanuel deftly diverted questions about whether he should unappoint Huggins by blaming everything on the RTA, which led to a snappy rebuttal from its Chairman John S. Gates Jr.

O'Halloran, by the way, did not return emails or phone calls.

And for the record, Hill's appointee, Jack Schaffer, cast the one "no" vote against the separation agreement.

What's next? Stay tuned.

Your voice

Since we're talking transit, we'll give a little space to RTA board member William Coulson, who hates the idea of Metra hiring another investigator. Coulson is a former assistant U.S. attorney from Glenview.

"First, such a private investigator does not have any subpoena power -- the ability to compel persons to testify and produce documents," Coulson wrote. "Usually only corporate employees (here Metra) would have a duty to cooperate with the internal investigator. Any such internal probe here would by its nature be incomplete.

"Second, the private attorney investigator would owe a fiduciary duty to the client; not to the public. He or she is simply not independent. And in this Metra situation, any private attorney faces a serious conflict of interest. Is his client Metra the agency, or the Metra board of directors, Directors O'Halloran and Huggins (against whom serious allegations of misconduct have been made), or all of the above? Any private attorney would be wading into a minefield of actual and potential conflicts of interest."

Got an opinion about Metra or anything else? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Gridlock alert

Finally something noncontroversial. Unless of course you live in Mundelein, Lincolnshire or Vernon Hills, where drivers should watch out for resurfacing on Route 45 between Route 83 and Old Route 21. The work starts today and runs through mid-November.

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