Damage control over Metra's latest scandal has cost $18,000 so far, and it's only a small piece of the consulting pie that's surpassing $300,000 as the agency deals with fallout from the exit of CEO Alex Clifford and allegations of corruption.
And what troubles some remaining members of Metra's greatly diminished board is they had no idea money was flying out the door.
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On April 3, Clifford sent a letter to his board with accusations of misconduct by top officials and political meddling at the agency over jobs and contracts.
A power struggle ensued at Metra, which is responsible for shuttling thousands of commuters to work and home every day.
Amid the chaos, what was one of the first things the agency did?
Hired a PR firm to put a positive spin on a very bad situation.
None of the spending went to a vote, and Metra is still keeping important details of the consultants' contracts secret, despite FOIA requests from the Daily Herald.
Clifford left in June after directors approved an up-to $718,000 separation agreement that's sparked outrage.
But back on April 9, a few days after the April 3 memo, the head of Culloton Strategies, a media and strategic communications firm, wrote to Metra attorney Andrew Greene thanking him for the offer of a job. The firm would "provide crisis communications counsel and strategy for your firm related to a client embroiled in an employment action, investigation and potential litigation," wrote Dennis Culloton -- a former press secretary for Gov. George Ryan -- whose firm handles high-profile clients such as the Ricketts family.
"My initial work will be to discern the threat level of this issue becoming public in the Chicago news media and then to consult with you on the best response for the client. We will also work with you to develop a strategy and message to prepare for any other media leaks or external communications challenges as well as to discuss proactive approaches to best protect the client's legal and reputational challenges," Culloton said.
"Challenges" is an understatement. Clifford accused former Chairman Brad O'Halloran and Director Larry Huggins of condoning pressure from Speaker Michael Madigan and other lawmakers over jobs along with conflicts of interest regarding contracts. Both men, who resigned recently, have denied any wrongdoing and have stated they had concerns about how Clifford ran the railroad.
O'Halloran authorized hiring Culloton Strategies, Greene said,
"My firm (and therefore Culloton Strategies) represent Metra. We report to the board," Greene said in an email.
But although the firm reports to the board, several directors said they had no idea Culloton Strategies was representing them.
That's a wake-up call, said Director Jack Schaffer of Cary.
"Whoever the next chairman is ... we need to have a clear policy about what they can and cannot do," he said. "The board's been cut out of the process."
After former CEO Phil Pagano committed suicide amid a financial scandal, the board established safeguards to watch over the chief executive officer. "But when there's no longer a CEO, who's watching the chairman?" Schaffer asked. He added, "that's no reflection on (Acting Chairman) Jack Partelow who I trust."
Naperville resident Partelow also thinks it's time to rein in consultant costs, but he won't do it solo.
"I want people to know what I know," he said. "There's just seven of us now and it's imperative we're all on the same page."
My tally for separation agreement-related consultants reached $284,000, but that doesn't include July, a bad, bad month for Metra with resignations and lengthy beatdowns before the RTA board and state lawmakers. It's safe to assume the costs will easily top $300,000.
Here's a quick recap of the consulting fees:
• Lawyers Hinshaw & Culbertson received $52,420 through mid-June for what O'Halloran characterized as an investigation of ethics violations by former U.S. prosecutor Rodger Heaton that found no wrongdoing. Metra is keeping Heaton's report secret.
• Culloton Strategies received $18,236 through June 30 for spin control. Exactly what they did for Metra remains a mystery.
• Mediation of the separation agreement by former Cook County chief judge Donald O'Connell came to $17,155.
• Work by the law firm of Laner Muchin that represented Metra in negotiations with Clifford's attorneys come to $85,423 through May.
• Separation agreement counsel by Greene's firm totaled $112,000 through May.
The crisis won't go away for Metra as enraged Illinois lawmakers call for the board's resignation and the restructuring of the agency every week in news releases. Meanwhile, ongoing investigations by the RTA and two state inspectors general continue.
And for the record
Dennis Culloton emailed, "I was hired by the board counsel, Andy Greene. I represented the board."
A Metra spokesman said that the agency has existing contracts with Johnston & Greene, Laner Muchin as well as Hinshaw and Culbertson. O'Connell was hired through the Laner contract, officials said. The board would only be required to formally act if a new contract was requested and if the amount of that new contract exceeded $100,000.
One more thing
Metra's website talks about a commitment to transparency, yet FOIA responses are full of redactions.
Exactly what Culloton's firm did for Metra is unknown. Metra attorneys blacked out specifics on invoices, although the agency did not redact the same information in responding to a FOIA request about its other PR consultant -- Mack Communications.
Metra's attorneys also blacked out all details about what Greene's law firm did for the agency. The Daily Herald has appealed the redactions to the Illinois attorney's general's office.
My pen is so powerful it caused Raymond Bellock indigestion. "I almost gagged at your suggestion last week that the Metra chairmanship become an elected position," he wrote. (Note to self: Tone down prose.)
"Please name one elected official at any level of government that we, the electorate, can say without equivocation that he/she is doing their job in an efficient and nonpolitical fashion. After Jesse White (is he elected?) I can think of no one.
"I do have an alternative with ready access to qualified nonpolitical candidates. My plan is that the Class 1 railroads over whose tracks Metra runs their trains be approached to designate one of their employees to fill this chairman role for a one-year period. Split the employee costs. Rotate the chairmanship in this fashion in succeeding years with the order of rotation being the annual train miles run by Metra over their rails. One might protest that one year is too short because of the learning curve. This may be true in the beginning. However, I feel that this will help to drive change in a forward direction, simplify the bureaucracy created any time a politician needs to create a job for a family member, etc. Certainly, the chosen person should have no learning curve regarding operational railroad issues! Anything but an elected official!"
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