Do RTA ties to Madigan pose conflict of interest over Metra audit?

As an oversight board, RTA leaders say it's their job to scrutinize the much-maligned separation agreement Metra offered to ex-CEO Alex Clifford that's led to allegations Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan exerted political pressure at the commuter rail agency.

But given that Madigan's son-in-law Jordan Matyas is second-in-command at the RTA, some wonder how independent the audit will be.

Matyas, an attorney who joined the agency in 2011, is the RTA's chief of staff.

Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran appeared before the RTA board Wednesday to justify the lavish separation agreement, which pays Clifford $442,000 outright and up to $718,000 if he can't find a job in a specified time.

But O'Halloran omitted Clifford's allegations that the speaker exerted pressure to give a raise to a political donor who worked at Metra. Those details he revealed before a House Mass Transit Committee panel Thursday.

An April 3 Clifford memo also states Madigan tried to get an unnamed individual hired at Metra and the CEO thought his job was in peril because he rejected the patronage requests.

RTA Executive Director Joe Costello responded to a request to Matyas for comment.

“Let me be very clear — the RTA does not have a conflict of interest,” Costello said. But he acknowledged that the issue “is definitely on our radar screen ... we're aware of it.”

To that end, Matyas is not part of the audit team or any related reviews of Metra, Costello said.

He clarified that the RTA's scrutiny is focused on the separation agreement and whether it was a prudent use of public money. The Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General is conducting its own probe that will examine if there was any ethical misconduct.

“We will do a financial audit — including the reasons behind Metra's conclusion, the process behind the conclusion and how they reached it,” Costello said. “Was the process proper and thoroughly vetted?”

Metra's lawyers have said the settlement was cheaper than an inevitable lawsuit would have been — so RTA auditors will assess those claims, Costello added.

Meanwhile, RTA Chairman John Gates has asked Clifford to testify before the agency's board on Wednesday.

One lawmaker thinks the RTA needs to publicly clear the air over the potential conflict.

“Whenever there is a familial relationship — even if it is not direct, I think it warrants a legal opinion as to whether there's a potential conflict of interest,” said state Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican.

To that end, the RTA's general counsel should offer an opinion, Harris said.

He and state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, are both on the House's Mass Transit Committee.

Matyas “does a good job and is competent; he should not be disparaged because of who he happened to marry,” Franks said. But “obviously, there is a conflict because of his father-in-law being brought into it.”

Franks said the controversy points to the need to reform all the transit boards in the region.

“It's dysfunctional — there's no accountability,” he said.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said “the RTA is the overseer of Metra, and they have a duty to investigate.”

But the Hinsdale Republican added, “it's ironic the No. 2 person at the RTA is (Madigan's) relative. It shows how far the Madigan monarchy stretches.”

Madigan's office has said it has no records of the hiring request but admitted supporting a raise for labor specialist Patrick Ward because of his qualifications and workload.

O'Halloran has denied there was any wrongdoing at Metra and has said he was unhappy with the direction the agency was headed under Clifford. O'Halloran also suggested that Clifford only brought up ethical qualms when it appeared his contract might not be renewed, at which point O'Halloran said he promptly turned them over to authorities.

Matyas previously was Illinois state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

He has worked as a litigator for the city of Chicago and several state agencies and also served in the White House press office under President Bill Clinton.

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