An August Regional Transportation Authority audit scolded Metra for hiring PR consultants, but the agency isn't practicing what it preaches.
Records show the RTA has spent thousands on spin control since 2011 in payments to big-name communications firms, including several with connections to the politically powerful Madigan family. The RTA's chief of staff Jordan Matyas is House Speaker Michael Madigan's son-in-law.
Switch out your old fare cardsPace and the CTA will officially transfer over to the new Ventra fare system in mid-December, which means now is a good time to transfer value from old fare cards to Ventra cards. Upcoming transfer opportunities in the suburbs are from 4 to 7 p.m. today at Pace headquarters, 550 W. Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights, and from 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the CTA Rosemont station, 5801 N. River Road.
What has the region gotten back in exchange for the pricey advice?
That's unclear. The impact of PR can be hard to quantify, and RTA leaders would not respond to questions asking them to demonstrate proven benefits.
One thing is certain -- Metra, Pace and the CTA, which are overseen by the RTA, face a $30 billion-plus infrastructure shortfall that's worsening every year despite the public relations blitz.
Documents the Daily Herald obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show four public relations firms have been paid more than $670,000 through RTA contracts since 2011. Among their duties: writing talking points and a speech for RTA leaders, building a national campaign promoting transit, and redoing the RTA Fact Book -- twice.
The RTA Act requires the agency to plan for effective and coordinated public transit and provide financial oversight of Metra, the CTA and Pace.
Lawmakers involved with transit issues worry the agency is overreaching its mandate with an image makeover.
The RTA has "gotten away from their core mission," said state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat.
"Their job is to coordinate the transit agencies for northeastern Illinois. Spending money on PR firms and speech writers is such an abuse of taxpayers' money."
"The public especially during tough economic times is extra sensitive -- as they should be -- to what appear to be pretty superfluous spending priorities," said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.
RTA Communications Director Susan Massel wrote in an email that the contracts are for work that is "beyond the capacity of the RTA's two-person communications department."
"The RTA awards contracts based on a series of criteria that is individual to each contract," Massel wrote.
"That said, in all cases the decisive factor is what is in the taxpayers' best interests with no weight placed on a company's political views or affiliations."
Here's a look at the PR expenditures.
Compass Public Affairs
On March 1, 2011, Matyas, an attorney, joined the RTA as head of government affairs. Later that month, he helped finalize details of a five-month, $45,000 no-bid contract with Compass Public Affairs.
The firm possessed "unique technical competence or expertise," documents indicate.
Compass' duties requiring unique skills included: advising on public affairs and outreach, promoting the RTA's long-term plan, attending transit meetings and redoing the RTA Fact Book. Staff with salaries ranging from $75 to $150 an hour read the old fact book, then updated and redesigned it.
Compass is led by Mike Noonan, a former aide to Michael Madigan, and as the firm's website notes, "Mike is also proud of his job as Lisa Madigan's campaign manager, helping Lisa become the first female Illinois attorney general." Lisa Madigan is the speaker's daughter and Matyas' sister-in-law.
Lisa Madigan spokeswoman Natalie Bauer said the attorney general had not worked with Noonan "in well over a decade since the end of the 2002 election. She has never worked with Compass Public Relations. The attorney general's office has no involvement whatsoever in RTA contracts or firms hired by the RTA."
Hill & Knowlton Inc.
Ad industry giant Hill & Knowlton was hired by the RTA on a no-bid three-month contract in November 2011 for $45,000.
The firm, whose consultants were paid from $260 to $450 an hour, had a familiar assignment -- editing and designing the RTA Fact Book, just a few months after Compass' efforts, invoices show.
Other duties were to shift perceptions of the RTA from a "coordinator/facilitator" to a "world class" planning agency and position Chairman John S. Gates Jr. as the "lead individual voice" of transit in the region. Another task was working on a speech Gates made in January 2012 to the City Club of Chicago.
In September 2011, Hill & Knowlton senior vice president Bill Griffin donated $1,000 to Citizens for Lisa Madigan, records show. In 2012, Griffin donated $1,150 to Citizens for Lisa Madigan and he contributed $500 to Friends of Michael J. Madigan in May 2012. He is no longer with the firm.
Hill & Knowlton has separately given $2,750 to Michael Madigan.
Neither Compass nor Hill & Knowlton or Griffin responded to requests for comment.
Michael Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said it was "stretching" to connect RTA contracts to former associates of Madigan or to random campaign contributions, and noted there are multiple laws in place to prevent conflicts of interest. Executives at Compass and another contractor, ASGK, had not worked with Madigan for some years, he said.
"We have no involvement in the request for proposals process (at the RTA) and the selection process. It's a real stretch," Brown said.
Lisa Madigan's Chief of Staff Ann Spillane said the attorney general had known Griffin personally for 20 years.
She added: "The attorney general has taken great care to have zero discussion about RTA business with Jordan Matyas, and we as an office have no involvement in RTA business."
However, Dillard commented that "I would hope the media dig deeply along with my legislative colleagues on the transportation or appropriations committees to see if these are politically connected public relations firms, which I suspect they sadly are."
And Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, asked why the RTA didn't possess the expertise in-house for tasks such as speech-writing. "Why they need multiple PR firms is questionable," he said.
Res Publica Group
Chicago heavy hitter Res Publica Group was hired in September 2012 to "drive conversation" leading to action on consolidating the RTA, Metra, Pace and CTA. The $96,000 contract was through mid-August 2013.
Since then, Gates has embarked on a letter-writing campaign pointing out what he considers inefficiencies at Metra, Pace and the CTA with the goal of giving the RTA more oversight.
Res Publica has billed the RTA for: handling media inquiries, preparing talking points on a Metra misconduct scandal, organizing visits to editorial boards and making a video explaining RTA litigation over sales taxes.
"Last year, our firm began working with the RTA to identify new ways to highlight their ongoing efforts to secure additional funding for public transit infrastructure and capital needs," Res Publica Vice President Steve Patterson said.
"Among our responsibilities was developing a campaign to detail how the city, county and transit agencies have lost roughly $300 million in sales tax revenues, due to dozens of Chicago-based corporations setting up storefront purchasing desks in small Illinois towns to avoid paying higher taxes here."
Res Publica has contributed about $6,500 to Lisa Madigan's campaigns, including a $2,000 donation in December 2011. Employees of Res Publica have separately donated $7,000.
Spillane said such donations should be taken in context with the fact Madigan's political campaign had raised about $22 million over the years.
ASGK Public Strategies
Numerous firms competed for a two-year contract ultimately awarded to PR bigwig ASGK on March 1, 2012, for up to $850,000.
ASGK partner Eric Sedler is another former Michael Madigan aide as is senior associate JP Valadez.
ASGK was founded by presidential adviser David Axelrod, who is no longer with the firm.
In 15 months, since March 2012, the RTA has paid ASGK more than $470,000. RTA directors balked originally at hiring ASGK but reconsidered after administrators promised it would prioritize getting more federal funding.
But that focus was later shifted to "building a coalition to support state of good repair funding," documents show.
Since then, ASGK has organized a national "Getting America to Work" campaign for the RTA, which touts the importance of transit and the need for funding.
Such coalitions, however, already exist -- the American Public Transportation Association, which has 1,500 members, including the RTA. GATW has recruited about 80 groups so far.
Bills from ASGK include: securing speaking GATW engagements for RTA Executive Director Joe Costello, prepping Costello for GATW appearances and organizing a GATW campaign launch in Washington D.C. in spring 2012. ASGK declined official comment.
The RTA has its own public affairs staff, which includes Communications Manager Annah Mitchell and Communications and Public Affairs Director Massel. Massel's job is a new $96,000 a year position that opened up this spring.
At the same time, former Communications and Customer Service Deputy Executive Director Diane Palmer was moved to deputy executive director of customer service.
The change meant a salary increase from $135,000 a year to $145,000 a year.
Massel said Palmer "changed positions to one that involves managing customer service for the RTA and overseeing approximately 34 employees; the salary increase was commensurate with the nature of the new job and the increased responsibilities it entails."
So, am I stretching things? Should the RTA be paying for speech writing? And what particular intersection is bothering you this week? Drop me a line at email@example.com