Is it time to start over with new Metra board?

A shake-up is needed on Metra's board of directors, state lawmakers say, as a scandal over political meddling in the agency continues to snowball.

“I've seen enough ... it's time to blow up the board at Metra,” Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, said Saturday. “It's not just hiring — it's on-time performance, mechanical breakdowns and a bad rollout of the fare increase.”

Controversy over a separation agreement worth as much as $718,000 with ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford is escalating after new revelations that he accused the board chairman and a former chairman of ousting him for rejecting political pressure by heavyweights such as Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The latest charges surfaced Friday after Metra gave lawmakers a secret memo written by Clifford April 3 detailing what he called misconduct by Chairman Brad O'Halloran and Director Larry Huggins.

“I don't think the entire board should resign en masse,” said state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, “but I think the leadership needs to give themselves a long hard look and think if they should continue in their positions.”

Clifford wrote that his job was in jeopardy because he wouldn't cave to demands to hire an unnamed Madigan crony or give a Metra employee who was a Madigan political donor a raise. He complained of O'Halloran trying to fire two top administrators and issue orders to staff members and a PR contractor, which is beyond the chairman's authority.

Metra attorneys and O'Halloran contend that Clifford only brought up the ethical concerns upon being told his contract might not be renewed, adding that they asked the Office of the Executive Inspector General to investigate in March 2013 when the allegations surfaced.

Metra officials offered lawmakers an edited version of the memo during a Thursday House Mass Transit Committee hearing before releasing the document.

But, “what was in the memo was more serious than what they let on in their description,” Harris said. “These are very serious allegations. The fact Madigan is involved raises the visibility of the whole thing.”

“I think there's a little more in there than they were letting on concerning board members,” said House Mass Transit Committee Chairwoman Deb Mell, a Chicago Democrat.

Madigan's office has denied he made the hiring request and said the pay raise intervention was warranted as the former employee, Patrick Ward, was well-qualified and his supervisor supported it.

Both Harris and state Reps. Jack Franks and Michael Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican, are pushing for another state hearing where Clifford will testify in person.

Franks, a Marengo Democrat, said he wants Clifford to answer questions, such as why he didn't bring his concerns about wrongdoing to outside authorities immediately.

“With O'Halloran, I don't know what's the truth and what is not ... but at least he answered the questions to the best of his ability,” Franks said of last week's hearing.

Lawmakers also expressed outrage that just two Metra board members attended the hearing. Franks said he thought any board member who didn't show up should resign.

However, Tryon said the actions of which O'Halloran and Huggins are accused “does not mean all the board members should be replaced. There's a lot of finger-pointing going on. You've got some board members with tremendous experience, mayors, county board leaders and former state senators.”

Another point of contention involves requests from the House Latino caucus that Metra hire a person it wanted for a deputy executive director position, according to the memo. Clifford characterized the lobbying as political hiring pressure. Latino lawmakers have countered they wanted Metra to increase the number of Latinos in Metra's administration as a matter of fairness.

Clifford also charged Huggins improperly intervened to encourage use of more black contractors on the Englewood flyover, a railroad bridge on the South Side.

When it comes to minority representation, it's a matter of interpretation, Harris said.

“You could reasonably argue that you do want to have diversity in the workforce ... it's a fine line,” he noted.

A number of directors, including O'Halloran, former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder, Jack Partelow of Naperville and Norm Carlson of Lake Forest, could not be reached or did not wish to comment on Saturday.

O'Halloran and Huggins both denounced their former CEO's claims in statements Friday.

“I have never intervened with Metra's staff regarding any jobs or contracts,” O'Halloran said.

“Everything I did to help resolve that (flyover) controversy with members of Congress was done in concert with federal and state transportation officials and legal counsel,” Huggins said.

For Harris, so far there's more questions than answers. He's skeptical about reform measures laid out by Metra leaders in which the board approves hires of employees earning $75,000 or above.

Board members are ”individuals appointed by political people. In essence, you're saying anything above $75,000 needs political review,” Harris said.

The latest scandal comes just three years after former CEO Phil Pagano committed suicide amid a probe into him swindling about $475,000 from the agency.

“This board has demonstrated a lack of accountability and transparency that is disturbing and ought to be of concern for all of us who fund that system ... not just commuters, but taxpayers,” said Madeleine Doubek, chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois, a government watchdog. “If the things that are being alleged are true, it ought to have some far-reaching consequences for the chairman and the speaker of the House and everyone else this touches.”

Kirk Dillard
David Harris
Alex Clifford
Mike Tryon
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