Metra, ex-CEO trade barbs over separation agreement

Metra’s messy divorce with former CEO Alex Clifford got even messier Wednesday when attorneys for Clifford accused the agency of putting a “muzzle” on their client while giving Metra leaders free reign to malign him with “inaccurate and disparaging statements.”

Meanwhile, Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran told RTA directors Wednesday he had been underwhelmed with Clifford’s performance.

After protracted and bitter negotiations, both sides approved a separation agreement in June giving Clifford a controversial payout that could reach up to $749,000 although his annual salary was $252,000.

The deal also contained a gag order, but O’Halloran broke his silence this week speaking to the Daily Herald as well as the RTA.

“Nothing in (the agreement) gives Metra the right to hold a press conference to disparage Mr. Clifford, let alone the right to muzzle Mr. Clifford’s right to reply,” attorney Edward Feldman said in a memo to Metra’s attorneys.

The situation began to heat up in March, according to O’Halloran, when a board member told Clifford his contract might not be renewed. Clifford then stated he was being retaliated against because he refused to go along with politically motivated hiring and contract requests, O’Halloran noted.

O’Halloran dismissed accusations that the severance deal was “hush money,” insisting the agreement was meant to avoid a lawsuit.

The chairman also revealed that he informed the Office of the Executive Inspector General of the patronage allegations immediately after hearing them. Clifford apparently never did, O’Halloran testified.

Clifford’s camp responded late Wednesday. “Virtually, the only accurate part of Mr. O’Halloran’s ... statements is that Mr. Clifford made allegations regarding patronage and the parties engaged in a mediation,” Feldman wrote.

He argued that Metra had violated parts of the agreement preventing either side from making disparaging remarks.

Feldman also argued that Metra was holding Clifford to a double standard by talking publicly about his exit, while preventing him from speaking out.

“Mr. Clifford has a right to respond to inaccurate or disparaging remarks,” he said.

O’Halloran is up before a House Mass Transit Committee meeting Thursday when it’s possible Clifford could appear. His attorneys said Clifford was being forced to decline because of the gag order.

Wednesday, O’Halloran faced questions from the Regional Transportation Authority about the severance package. Clifford left Metra in June although his three-year contract was through February 2014.

“The high dollar figure associated with his departure warrants a closer examination of the agreement,” RTA Chairman John S. Gates Jr. said.

O’Halloran said Clifford incorrectly felt board members including Larry Huggins, a construction executive who is African American, exceeded their authority in intervening with South Side residents and congressmen after protests erupted over the Englewood Flyover, a railway bridge. Community residents said Metra had left black contractors out of the project.

“This was not where someone tried to get a contract for their relative — this was addressing a major insult,” O’Halloran said.

Several RTA board directors asked if it was correct for Metra board members caught up in any allegations to vote on the separation agreement.

Metra officials said they had sufficient votes to pass the deal even if those directors had recused themselves.

O’Halloran also testified Clifford considered overtures from Latino state lawmakers to hire more minorities in senior management another case of politicking.

In contrast, O’Halloran said he thought these “were legitimate conversations to raise.”

Feldman called O’Halloran’s characterizations of the flyover and Latino caucus situations “inaccurate and misleading.”

Also at Wednesday’s hearing, O’Halloran testified that after contract negotiations with Clifford broke down this spring, both sides hired lawyers, which meant the situation “degenerated so that the CEO communicated with the board only after consulting with his attorneys.”

Negotiations were “torturous,” Metra attorney Joe Gagliardo said, adding that “whatever we did, there was going to be a lawsuit.”

The RTA has financial oversight of Metra, Pace and the CTA. Wednesday’s hearing was relatively cordial, although numerous RTA leaders pressed O’Halloran on the “incredibly generous” offer, as Director Susan Pang put it.

Gagliardo said Clifford’s attorneys argued he was in a position to be awarded another three-year contract and the deal brokered was the best Metra could get.

RTA Director John Frega of Riverside, for one, appeared satisfied with the testimony.

“I think the blame goes to the people who set up the original contract,” he said.

O’Halloran also said he thought the duo of Deputy Executive Director for Administration Alex Wiggins and Chief of Operations Don Orseno can move the agency forward and save money by not immediately hiring a replacement.

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