Resigning Metra board director details 'gotcha game'
For Mike McCoy of Aurora, the back-and-forth this spring over whether to renew former Metra CEO Alex Clifford's contract had turned into a "gotcha game" of accusations and legal threats.
Then, in recent weeks, that "game" spiraled out of control, and McCoy -- a Metra board director and former Kane County chairman -- decided he'd had enough. On Friday, he resigned, saying he no longer had the time or desire to serve.
His resignation strips Metra of a plain-spoken and independent voice at a time when, perhaps, the board needs it most. And in leaving, McCoy broke his silence on why he approved an up to $718,000 separation agreement for Clifford on June 21 and talked about what went wrong at the agency.
McCoy said his vote on what's been called a golden parachute for Clifford was a business decision.
"We were mired in a war of lawyers," said McCoy, a civil engineer. "I could hear the cash registers ringing and I thought it had to stop."
It didn't stop, and it all came to a head last week as auditors sought answers to allegations of corruption and "hush money" at the agency.
Here's a quick recap of the most recent Metra drama:
Testifying before the RTA board last week, Clifford made a compelling case that although the agency sought a squeaky-clean image, he was ousted for rejecting patronage demands from powerful politicians like Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Metra Director Larry Huggins made a strong counterpoint that -- despite Clifford's claims that Huggins broke the rules -- it was right to fight for more African-American subcontractors on the Englewood Flyover bridge project.
And beleaguered Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran called Clifford's accusations that O'Halloran schemed to fire him for refusing Madigan's requests a lot of "hooey."
McCoy is the first board member to explain his vote on the Clifford deal in detail, with the exception of O'Halloran and Huggins. The separation agreement has a confidentiality clause, but after two weeks of incendiary rhetoric, that train seems to have left the station.
Metra started unraveling April 3 when Clifford dropped a bomb of a memo to the board accusing O'Halloran and Huggins of condoning pay-to-play politics and overstepping their authority. The fact his contract might not be renewed was retaliation for not playing the game, he charged.
Clifford testified Wednesday before the Regional Transportation Authority and dropped other bombs -- alleged conflicts of interest involving contracts with Huggins and O'Halloran. Both deny any wrongdoing.
Prior to the April 3 memo, McCoy said he thought Clifford's contract would be renewed, despite recognizing that O'Halloran had serious differences with the CEO, who was paid $252,000 a year.
"I think if he'd just gone forward with the contract process he would have gotten a contract extension," McCoy noted.
But comments in the April 3 letter changed McCoy's view of Clifford's career at Metra.
Clifford wrote that his lawyer (patronage expert Michael Shakman) was communicating with Metra attorneys "concerning claims I may have against Metra arising from the facts described in this memo."
That to McCoy was a threat and, from then on, he felt there was no way to deal in good faith with Clifford.
"After he threatened to sue it was very hard going forward. For example, if he didn't like my review, would he say that I was retaliating? If we disagree on policy issues, is that retaliating? I became convinced unless we offered him another contract there was going to be a lawsuit."
Clifford charged that a committee led by O'Halloran and Huggins would evaluate him, making a "sham" of the entire performance review.
McCoy thinks Clifford "implied two people controlled the evaluation process and that was never true. It had to be a board decision and he resisted the process."
From that moment on, Metra started to spiral, McCoy thinks.
"I think after we were threatened with a lawsuit it seemed the energy of the whole agency -- from the board's standpoint and the executive director's -- has been on litigation and that doesn't interest me. The board got caught in the crossfire and it turned into a gotcha game."
But McCoy said a critical mistake was made to keep tight-lipped about the separation agreement and the April 3 memo. "The press needs to know what's going on," he said.
That caution was pervasive, he said. "At one point, there was an email (from attorneys) saying we shouldn't talk to each other -- board member to board member."
Clifford and others have criticized the interim measure the board approved for handling the CEO's job with Deputy Executive Director for Operations Don Orseno and Deputy Executive Director for Administration Alex Wiggins sharing power.
"They can coexist for a while ... but you've got to have one executive director," McCoy said, adding experienced railroader Orseno is the best choice. "He cares about the railroad, he cares about running the railroad and the customers and making sure things are safe."
Regarding the Englewood Flyover, a railroad bridge on the South Side, McCoy thinks Clifford is wrong criticizing Huggins for overstepping his authority in working to bring more black subcontractors on board.
Congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny Davis and former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., along with a roomful of incensed South Siders, accused Metra of excluding African-American firms in May 2012. Lawmakers also talked of pulling funding for the project.
"We had a large portion of the community coming out and testifying and three congressmen ... there's no way I felt I could ignore their concerns. Congressman Danny Davis said, 'you people are intelligent people. You can work this out.' I thought that was a good recommendation," McCoy said.
"The other thing was the funding was not secured. The people who helped get our funding asked us to please work something out with the community. Alex always told me, 'I did nothing wrong.' Well, when the community's that upset, someone did something wrong."
And another thing
McCoy is still steamed over the board voting earlier this year to increase the cost of 10-ride passes. His was the sole vote against it.
"I think it was viewed as an easy way to get money but what they did was single out 30 percent of our customers to bear the brunt," McCoy said.
When sales of 10-ride passes started dropping after the Feb. 1 increase, "it was obvious the analysis was wrong," McCoy said.
McCoy said he's still hopeful directors will reverse the fare decision, an issue O'Halloran said he'll revisit.
"I hope they roll back the 10 rides and people get their discount back -- then I'd feel as if I accomplished something," he said.
"I was interested in helping to run a railroad and make it as good as it could be and we got defocused. I didn't mind the extra hours but to go in there and talk about litigation and 'what's our message going to be' ... I didn't want that."
Clifford disagreed with complaints the agency fell into malaise this spring and summer.
"Business did not come to a halt," he testified before the RTA. "That's a fallacy -- it's just not true."
And Clifford also said he loved his job and wanted to stay.
"It was my goal to stay with Metra and work there. It was my goal to stay until the end of my contract."
A reminderEx-Metra CEO Alex Clifford's separation agreement of up to $718,000, including moving expenses, isn't the only thing budget-conscious riders might want to sigh over. In 2011, the agency paid railroad expert Avery Grimes $337,000 to assist Clifford in transitioning and reorganizing the agency. Clifford, who started in February 2011 and left in June 2013, was paid $252,000 a year.