New details emerge in Metra controversy

Metra officials were forced to air more of their dirty laundry Thursday in six hours of testimony that included accusations of “hush money,” charges of political interference from Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and even a call to oust the majority of the beleaguered board.

Through it all, Illinois lawmakers at Thursday’s Mass Transit Committee hearing remained unconvinced that the transit board did the right thing in approving a golden parachute for ex-CEO Alex Clifford in June. The severance package included $442,000 outright and up to $749,000 if Clifford doesn’t get a job by a specified time.

Lawmakers hammered away at the amount, especially amid concerns voiced by Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran over Clifford’s performance.

“It seems you had a defensible position. Why did you make the decision to enter into a settlement agreement?” asked Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican. “We’re dealing with public dollars — that’s why people are so incensed. Metra is the second largest (commuter) railway in the country. And there’s been a series of stumbles.”

State Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, voiced displeasure that nine of the 11 Metra board members did not attend the hearing in Chicago. They “showed scorn for the customers and for the taxpayers,” he said, suggesting they should either resign or be replaced.

Much of controversy over Clifford’s departure was revisited Thursday amid new details, including accusations that Madigan had pushed to get a Metra employee a raise. But questions still remained, and lawmakers said they are considering their next steps and how to obtain documents Metra is not releasing.

Clifford did not attend the hearing. Committee Chairman Deborah Mell said she’d received information from his camp that although Clifford “would be happy to appear,” he had consulted with Metra and believed it could violate the conditions of the agreement, which included a gag order.

Metra has made the case that the agency’s hands were tied regarding the separation agreement and Clifford would have sued. The situation turned toxic in March when board member Paul Darley told Clifford his contract might not be renewed and the administrator claimed he was being retaliated against because he refused to go along with political pressure on hiring and contracts, officials say.

Metra attorney Joe Gagliardo said O’Halloran had promptly asked the Office of the Executive Inspector General to investigate.

Gagliardo told state representatives that the accusations involved the request from Madigan, a conversation with the House Latino caucus about hiring someone as deputy director, and involvement by the board in resolving the Englewood Flyover, a railway bridge located on the South Side.

“Elected officials don’t lose their First Amendment rights to talk to someone,” Gagliardo said, adding it wasn’t inappropriate to ask about a raise for an employee if they were hardworking. “Nonetheless Mr. Clifford felt it was a political inquiry. The bottom line was the employee was not given a raise.”

Madigan said in a statement he had recommended that former Metra labor specialist Patrick Ward get a raise. Ward, an acquaintance of 15 years, was well-qualified and had not received a raise despite being given additional responsibilities, Madigan said. The recommendation was withdrawn because Clifford objected.

Several lawmakers have said the caucus was seeking to increase representation for minorities on Metra but did not pressure Clifford.

Several South Side congressmen and the community in general thought Metra was excluding black construction companies regarding the flyover.

But Clifford claimed Metra Director Larry Huggins, the acting chairman, overstepped his authority by pressuring the main contractor on the project to enter into an agreement to get black contractors involved in the work. He also had concerns O’Halloran was usurping his authority, officials said.

While most of the testimony came from Metra officials defending the contract, Director Jack Schaffer offered a different version saying that about $500,000 of the contract “was hush money.” Schaffer cast the only no vote when the board voted on Clifford’s contract.

“Alex Clifford is a consummate transit professional — his only deficiency was he didn’t understand Illinois politics,” Schaffer of Cary said.

O’Halloran later said Schaffer’s “hush money” comment was “disingenuous.” O’Halloran has said he disagreed with Clifford on several policy issues including a 10-ride fare increase, relations with the railroad unions and the transition to a universal fare system.

While Gagliardo argued that going to trial would have surpassed the settlement by far, Rep. Mike Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican, wasn’t convinced. “Is it better to do the cheap thing or the right thing?” he asked.

The ex-CEO’s attorneys have accused Metra of a double standard — disparaging Clifford in public but not allowing him to defend himself about attacks because of a gag order in the separation agreement.

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Dave Dvorak/ddvorak@dailyherald.comMetra CEO Brad O’Halloran, left, scratches his head as Metra attorney Joe Gagliardo answers questions from the Mass Transit Committee in Chicago Thursday.
Dave Dvorak/ddvorak@dailyherald.comMetra attorney Joe Gagliardo, left, answers questions from the Mass Transit Committee in Chicago Thursday.
Dave Dvorak/ddvorak@dailyherald.comMetra CEO Brad O’Halloran was questioned by the Mass Transit Committee in Chicago Thursday.
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