U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush said Tuesday that he didn't engage in improper dealings with officials at the Metra commuter rail agency over a massive construction project on Chicago's South Side.
The recently ousted head of Metra, one of the largest rail agencies the nation, has said he was forced to step down for resisting pressure from several politicians in personnel and contract decisions and named Rush in a memo detailing his allegations. The memo came to light during investigations into why Alex Clifford was given a severance package that could total as much as $718,000, a buyout that lawmakers and others have criticized as "hush money" and a waste of public funds.
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"At no time did I persuade, pressure, push, urge or steer Clifford or any other Metra official to hire anyone," Rush told reporters at a news conference in front of a construction site for part of the $93 million rail project known as the Englewood Flyover.
Clifford's allegations of political pressure have triggered an inquiry by lawmakers and investigations by the state inspector general and the state legislature's ethics committee. His memo also names one of Illinois' most powerful politicians, House Speaker Michael Madigan, who denies wrongdoing.
The turmoil has become such a distraction that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois on Tuesday pressed federal transportation authorities to step in and provide oversight to ensure the rail service continues to operate safely.
Rush, a Democrat whose district includes the largely black neighborhood of Englewood, had organized protests of the original Englewood Flyover contract because few African-American owned businesses were hired to work on it, even though it met federal requirements for the hiring of minority-owned companies.
During negotiations with community groups, the general contractor agreed on its own to hire more black companies. Metra was not part of those talks.
Clifford contends that a Metra board member, nonetheless, arranged with Rush for the agency to pay $50,000 to an organization of the congressman's choosing to monitor compliance with that separate agreement.
Clifford balked and says the "matter went away."
Rush said Tuesday that he was only responding to requests from several Metra officials for a recommendation on whom to hire and that he suggested the National Black Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. When pressed repeatedly to name the Metra officials, Rush said he could not remember.
"It might have been staff, it might have been a board member, it might have been a combination of all of it," Rush said. "I don't remember. Alright?"
In Clifford's April memo, which Metra released last month under pressure from lawmakers investigating the costly severance deal, the former CEO says Metra board member Larry Huggins was in contact with Rush about the matter.
Clifford objected to the idea that Metra should monitor compliance with an agreement that it wasn't a party to and said that Huggins was unable to explain to him what the money was for.
"He just wanted me to call Congressman Rush's office and find out who I was supposed to write this $50,000 check to, and I said, `Well, I can't do that,"' Clifford said at a July 17 hearing before the board of the Regional Transportation Authority, which is auditing the severance deal.
Huggins is among four Metra board members who have resigned since the allegations of political patronage deals emerged in the wake of Clifford's June 21 buyout. The resignations have left the board short of the quorum it needs to sign off on critical decisions or to even name a new permanent executive director.
Durbin said in a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration on Tuesday that he is concerned that the lack of permanent leadership at Metra "creates a situation where accountability is hard to find and priorities like safety could become neglected."