Alex Clifford could be working at his "dream job" in Los Angeles, according to the executive who wanted him in that post, but he preferred to remain as Metra's CEO, a fateful decision that now finds him looking for employment.
Clifford left his post at Metra in June amid a bitter split with board Chairman Brad O'Halloran and Director Larry Huggins. The two men worked to oust him when he rejected political patronage pressure from Speaker Michael Madigan and others, Clifford said.
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Both Huggins and O'Halloran, who resigned last week, have called Clifford's claims untrue and questioned his abilities as an administrator.
But a year before Metra's recent meltdown, Clifford was contacted about a job opening at Metrolink, the commuter rail agency serving Los Angeles and the surrounding suburbs.
Prior to taking over at Metra in February 2011, Clifford was a transit executive in Southern California.
After Metrolink's CEO quit unexpectedly in May 2012, "the first person I called was Alex," former Metrolink Chairman Richard Katz recalled. "I said, 'this is open. I want to give you a head's up.'"
Clifford told him that he'd made a commitment to Metra and was just starting to see the results of changes at the agency.
"He wasn't comfortable walking out" although the Metrolink opportunity was his 'dream job,'" said Katz, a consultant and former California state lawmaker. "Alex believes in loyalty. It's old school, but it's a part of old-school that I like."
Clifford confirmed in an email he'd been contacted about the Metrolink job.
"I thanked Mr. Katz for considering me but declined to pursue it, opting to remain loyal to Metra and my commitment to lead the stabilization and reforms effort I initiated in early 2011," he wrote.
Now Clifford is searching for work as two state inspectors general investigate ethics violations at Metra and the Regional Transportation Authority audits an up-to $718,000 separation agreement with him that sparked outrage from politicians and the public. His annual salary was $252,000.
Clifford referenced Katz at an RTA hearing in July where he described worrying his job was in peril in spring 2013 after O'Halloran told him he'd offended Madigan by rejecting the speaker's request to give a raise to a political contributor who worked at Metra.
Clifford testified that O'Halloran, a University of Notre Dame official, went behind his back and contacted an attorney in California, who was a Notre Dame grad, to "try and to get some information" about him from Katz.
Katz confirmed he'd been asked some "straightforward" questions about Clifford. "I told them 'you hired him to be a reformer, maybe you should figure out what you want,'" he recounted saying.
O'Halloran who also resigned as an Orland Park trustee last week said he was now a "private citizen" and did not comment on the issue.
In a statement Thursday, O'Halloran said Clifford had "misrepresented or outright invented supposed conversations he claims to have had with me." He noted that he immediately brought allegations of unethical conduct to the Office of the Executive Inspector General.
Metrolink hired a new CEO who started in fall 2012. Meanwhile, Katz said he is concerned the publicity blitz may hurt Clifford's search for a job.
"My fear for him is that people will think he's a troublemaker," he said.