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updated: 8/2/2013 5:28 AM

Metra claims report clears its name but keeps it secret

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Former Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran repeatedly testified an "investigation" by a former federal prosecutor found "nothing" regarding allegations he and another official condoned political patronage at the commuter rail agency.

The public will have to take O'Halloran's word for it because Metra is keeping former assistant U.S. attorney Rodger Heaton's findings secret.

Metra officials denied a Freedom of Information Act request by the Daily Herald for Heaton's report Thursday.

They did release documents that showed Heaton's firm is a longtime Metra contractor and that it was retained this spring for "legal services and advice" regarding Metra ex-CEO Alex Clifford, who has accused O'Halloran and Metra Director Larry Huggins of misconduct.

O'Halloran quit Thursday after weeks of escalating pressure.

"The more that you shroud things in secrecy, it just begs questions," said state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican. "It's simply the wrong way to operate a public board."

Harris and other members of the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee are scrutinizing an up to $718,000 separation agreement with Clifford.

O'Halloran and Huggins have denied any wrongdoing. O'Halloran has said Clifford raised issues only when his job was on the line and should have brought them to authorities when they surfaced in 2012.

The agency's legal department denied the FOIA request stating the law exempts "materials prepared or compiled by or for a public body in anticipation of a criminal, civil or administrative proceeding upon the request of an attorney advising the public body." Also exempt were any preliminary drafts or recommendations or memos in which opinions are expressed, attorneys wrote.

In 2010, Metra conducted a probe into corruption involving deceased CEO Phil Pagano. Back then, the board voted on hiring attorney James Sotos, who was not under contract to the agency, for $250 an hour to investigate Pagano. Officials released Sotos' report to the public when it was complete.

In comparison, Heaton was hired without a board vote in March for $350 an hour. His firm, Hinshaw & Culbertson has worked under a five-year $250,000 contract with Metra since 2008 to represent the railroad in personal injury lawsuits and corporate cases. The firm has been paid about $52,000 for work related to the scandal.

O'Halloran told the Daily Herald July 9 that Heaton uncovered "nothing of substance" regarding misconduct.

He testified to the RTA on July 10 that "after a separate investigation we commissioned by a former U.S. attorney, I believe there were no legal violations."

O'Halloran had hoped to hire renowned former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins on July 22 to conduct a second investigation for up to $150,000 and stated that Collins would make a public report to the board. That fell through after Collins withdrew and it's doubtful there are enough board votes for a similar move.

Clifford has accused Huggins and O'Halloran of retaliating against him for refusing to go along with Illinois political hanky-panky. Clifford said his job was in danger for denying a request from Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to give a raise to an employee who donated to the Chicago Democrat and his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

The Daily Herald has appealed the FOIA denial to the public access counselor, an official with Lisa Madigan's office.

Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego, and GOP state Reps. Mike Tryon and Darlene Senger, of Crystal Lake and Naperville, called upon Michael Madigan Thursday to immediately call a Mass Transit Committee meeting on the imbroglio.

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