Metra board hires attorney to investigate its director
Two weeks ago Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano basked in the approval of board directors as he wrapped up a routine meeting announcing the agency had won another prestigious safety award.
On Friday, the longtime Metra chief's career appeared in peril as the officials who praised his efforts hired an independent investigator to probe allegations of financial misconduct.
Pagano is on paid leave following questions of "financial irregularities." Although initially the questions centered around reports that Pagano had received an unauthorized $56,000 bonus on top of his $269,635 salary, the investigator attorney James G. Sotos indicated that the problem could be more far-reaching.
Metra board Chairman Carole Doris, a former prosecutor and Illinois deputy attorney general, started the inquiry herself last week and brought in Sotos to assist.
Sotos, who Metra officially hired Friday at an emergency meeting, said the initial probe had raised the possibility of "serious misconduct and possible violations of public trust."
Board directors appointed Bill Tupper, a civil engineer who is the agency's deputy executive director for operations, to take Pagano's place temporarily.
"This is a sad occasion for all of us," Doris said. "But it's also a day of resolve. We have a duty to the taxpayers to protect how our resources are spent."
Both Sotos and Doris declined to elaborate on any specifics of the investigation.
Asked whether Metra officials intend to bring their findings to the Illinois attorney general, Sotos said the review was in the early stages. If evidence of any criminal misconduct surfaces, it would be referred to the proper authorities, he said.
Pagano met with the board in executive session Friday.
Doris said the board talked about apparent unauthorized payments made to Pagano. "This raises serious questions if our policies and procedures have been violated. The board believes we do not have adequate answers," she said.
Pagano did not return calls seeking comment Friday and declined to comment earlier this week.
Pagano's paid leave only extends for 14 days and board directors would need to approve an extension.
Metra used to award top executives bonuses, but stopped amid criticism from state legislators and the Illinois attorney general's office.
Payroll checks are signed by Metra's chief financial officer and deputy executive director for administration.
Pagano, of Crystal Lake, has worked for Metra since its inception in 1984. He became executive director in 1990.
The allegations are particularly troubling as Metra along with its sister transit agencies are in the midst of financial turbulence. Metra froze wages in its 2010 budget, instituted fare hikes on weekend passes and one-way fares and raised penalties on people buying tickets on trains.
Sotos will be paid $250 an hour. His Itasca firm specializes in reviewing alleged misconduct by government employees.
The probe is "something we all want done as expeditiously as possible," Metra Director Jim LaBelle of Lake County said.
Tupper will serve at his current salary of $175,000.
Doris also announced she was creating a committee to scrutinize compensation procedures with a focus on executive pay.