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Outgoing Metra directors describe ups, downs at agency

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  • Metra Director Arlene Mulder will attend her last Metra meeting this Friday.

      Metra Director Arlene Mulder will attend her last Metra meeting this Friday.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer, November 2011

  • Metra Director Jack Schaffer ends his tenure on the board this Friday.

      Metra Director Jack Schaffer ends his tenure on the board this Friday.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer, November 2011

  • Video: Metra in perspective


Friday marks the departure of suburban Metra board directors Arlene Mulder and Jack Schaffer from the transit agency that's weathered one controversy after another in the past four years.

In interviews last week, the two veterans, who have a combined 17 years on Metra, offered a behind-the-scenes look at the highs and extreme lows during a time marked by scandal, political high jinks and a very public suicide. They also spoke of Metra's climb back to stability and the future.

To recap, in spring 2010, CEO Phil Pagano stepped in front of a train amid a corruption investigation. His fall from grace led to revelations the expert railroader embezzled thousands through unauthorized payouts and enriched cronies.

Mulder, the former Arlington Heights mayor, recalled Pagano as a gregarious insider who commanded respect from railroad CEOs and lawmakers alike. His combination of bluster and humor helped make things happen, such as a new Arlington Heights train station or persuading UP to give up right-of-way land for downtown redevelopment.

Although initially Union Pacific Railroad bosses were reluctant, "Phil did a lot of downfield blocking," Mulder said.

Pagano "was an icon," said Schaffer, a former state senator from Cary. "He was a guy who was a very positive force," but "he went off the rails."

The details of Pagano's death spiral are still a mystery, Schaffer said. Some former Metra executives "should have known something was going on, (but) they didn't come forward. We had a system where everyone reported to Phil -- after all those years, people were very loyal."

Mulder recalled Pagano breaking down in a closed session meeting with the board in April 2010 and admitting misconduct. "Everyone was solemn," Mulder said. "He just said, 'it wasn't gambling ... it wasn't drugs.'" An FBI report later indicated Pagano was involved in numerous extramarital affairs.

"The whole thing was such a shock, there was no hint of impropriety," Mulder said. "He committed his whole life to building one of the best transportation organizations in the nation ... I don't know what happened."

The fallout spawned what I'll call Reform Metra Campaign No. 1, which resulted in hiring CEO Alex Clifford. The strait-laced Californian was an experienced administrator, but he didn't speak railroad and Illinois politics caught him by surprise.

A can of worms exploded in spring 2013 when Clifford cried foul about patronage pressure over jobs from lawmakers like Speaker Mike Madigan, and he implicated former chairmen Brad O'Halloran and Larry Huggins. It ended messily with Clifford, O'Halloran and Huggins exiting.

That led to Reform Metra Campaign No. 2.

When looking for a Pagano replacement, Mulder said, "we really put honesty and integrity at the top of the list."

"If that funny business hadn't been going on, I wonder if Alex would have grown into the position," she said. "Metra has a lot of long-term employees. Some had great respect for (Clifford), others hadn't made up their minds."

Clifford's relationship with Huggins and O'Halloran started unraveling in 2012. While the two denied any wrongdoing and criticized his management abilities, Clifford contends he was ousted for refusing to give a Madigan donor working at Metra a raise.

Clifford called Schaffer saying, "I'm getting heat (over the raise), what do you think?" Schaffer recalled.

"I said, 'Alex, we haven't given our management team a raise in years,'" Schaffer said, adding he warned the CEO that favoring an employee because of a political request was a "slippery slope."

Schaffer thinks Madigan, who has acknowledged his office requested the raise, took unfair flak during the scandal because O'Halloran insisted that Clifford's poor relationship with the speaker would cost Metra funding.

"It was used as an excuse to get rid of Alex," Schaffer said. "I said no, Mike Madigan's not going to throw suburban rail under the bus over this."

During the ensuing power struggle, Schaffer backed Clifford and voted "hell, no," for an infamous separation agreement of more than $700,000.

Schaffer blames the "appointing authorities" -- the county chairmen and Cook County Board officials who chose Metra directors -- for muddying the waters during the conflict. "Clearly, there was pressure from outside," Schaffer said.

Schaffer said he is hopeful that the debacle could encourage the appointing authorities to "back off and leave board members alone for a while."

A slew of Metra directors resigned last summer while the scandal was at its height. Schaffer announced earlier, in January 2013, he wouldn't seek reappointment. Mulder last fall said she would serve until the end of her term in June, then step down.

It will be a little strange watching from the sidelines after the two directors attend their last meeting on Friday, Mulder and Schaffer acknowledged.

However, both think new CEO Don Orseno combines railroading know-how and administrative experience that can keep the agency out of trouble.

"He's the right guy at the right time," Schaffer said.

"I grew up fascinated by trains," Mulder said. "I've been honored to be part of our nation's second-largest transit system."

"They're good people," Schaffer said. "If we get some decent funding, we'll make that system world-class."

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