Just when I thought the dust was settling from Metra, a recent Freedom of Information Act request raises new questions about the power struggle between former CEO Alex Clifford and ex-Chairman Brad O'Halloran, including an unknown detail about an ethics inquiry.
Clifford exited in June saying he'd been forced out for rejecting political patronage and conflicts of interest over contracts linked to O'Halloran and another former board member. A separation agreement of up to $718,000 -- called "hush money" by some lawmakers -- instigated a scandalous summer of hearings and state investigations.
Turkey travel 411Is it a staycation Thanksgiving? Not quite, but the number of travelers will dip this holiday, AAA reports. Just 43.4 million Americans will take a trip 50 miles or more from home, a 1.5 percent decrease from 44 million in 2012. But in Illinois, turkey trips are up by 1.3 percent with 2.3 million people going out of town. There's good news on the gas front: AAA projects gas could sell for less than $3 a gallon in most states.
Clifford testified publicly that when Metra was considering expanding its pool of banks, O'Halloran exerted pressure to include Wintrust Corp. on the short list. O'Halloran is a board director at Old Plank Trail Community Bank, a Wintrust bank in Orland Park.
My FOIA request to Metra about Wintrust yielded one email from Clifford to Chief Procurement Officer Paul Kisielius dated Feb. 25, 2013.
"Paul," Clifford writes, "the chair(man) confirmed today that we should proceed with putting the RFP (request for proposals) on the street. He asks that we include in the distribution list Wintrust out of Rosemont. Please proceed with some dispatch."
Kisielius responded that due to the potentially controversial nature of the banking services contract, his staff members had done some research and found the connection between the chairman and Wintrust, Clifford told me this week.
Back in February, "I was unaware of that fact," Clifford said in an email.
"I then asked if he (Paul) had brought this to the attention of the ethics officer. He said he had not and asked if he should. I told him to do so. The matter was then turned over to the ethics officer," Clifford said.
Metra officials confirmed ethics officer Suzy Choi-Lee "was asked whether there would be anything improper with Wintrust making a proposal," spokesman Michael Gillis said.
"Her response was Wintrust could bid on and be awarded a Metra contract but O'Halloran had to recuse himself completely from the matter."
That's the first I've heard of an issue involving the former chairman going to the ethics officer. It certainly gives perspective on the relationship between Clifford and O'Halloran that played out until Clifford's exit.
O'Halloran did not return calls for comment, but in July he called Clifford's assertions "hooey."
"He's taking something innocent and turning it into something untoward," O'Halloran said, adding that Clifford was distorting his attempts to broaden the number of banks that work for Metra.
Interestingly, Clifford reported that O'Halloran sought to dismiss Kisielius in January 2013 but the CEO did not go along, according to an April email to the board.
O'Halloran has denied interfering in personnel. He resigned from Metra in August, saying he didn't want to distract from the agency's mission.
In the end, Metra did include Wintrust among the 100 banks from which it sought proposals, but the bank did not respond. The current banking services contract is with Bank of America.
Meanwhile, two state inspectors general are investigating the corruption allegations and a state task force on transit is set to issue findings in January.
Elk Grove Village mom Bethany Morse had this to say about last week's column on surviving holiday travel with kids: "I felt guilty because we opted OUT of it this year (though it's actually a five-hour Christmas drive)," she wrote. "Everybody is coming to us. We have five little ones aged 6 months to 7.
"A year ago we did an airplane trip and brought and installed four carseats on the plane, rear-facing for the 1- and 3-year-olds, forward-facing for the 4- and 6-year-olds. Note though, that children under 2 don't fly free, as the article says. That is only for lap babies (which isn't safe).
"The hardest part was carrying all the seats through the airport! But it was well worth it having everyone safe and secure."
Relax. It's good news this time. Widening on Lake-Cook Road after five months of construction between Pfingsten and Waukegan roads is over, Cook County officials announced this week. Lake-Cook and Waukegan roads handle about 40,000 vehicles a day. Work included new left turn lanes, signals, lighting and other treats.
"Santa, I want lower tolls." You can request this of the jolly old elf in person from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the following tollway oases: Dec. 1 in Lake Forest, Dec. 8 in Belvidere, Dec. 14 in Hinsdale and Dec. 22 at the Chicago Southland Lincoln Oasis. Santa will be available for pictures with kids and you can also drop off donations to the Toys for Tots charity in specially marked boxes.
One more thing
Cycling advocates are asking for help to prevent bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities, which total 16.3 percent of all traffic deaths, according to federal data. Proposed legislation entitled the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to set goals to reduce those fatalities. To learn more, go to cqrcengage.com/lab/home.