After weeks of a worsening scandal, Metra Board Chairman Brad O'Halloran has resigned, blaming his downfall largely on former CEO Alex Clifford and on "a media and political frenzy" over allegations of political favoritism.
O'Halloran, also an Orland Park trustee, was under fire after allegations he went along with political pressure from the likes of Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan at Metra.
O'Halloran's announcement adds to the leadership vacuum created by Clifford's departure last month and the recent resignation of two suburban Metra directors over the scandal.
"The first order of business is to gather things together and keep the railroad running," Vice Chairman Jack Partelow of Naperville said.
Now the question is -- who will lead the board and restore public confidence to a much-tarnished image?
Although Partelow is vice chairman, Metra policy requires that a Cook County Board director finish the rest of O'Halloran's term. With eight votes required for a new chairman and eight members remaining on the board, finding consensus could prove difficult.
The Metra board in June approved a much-maligned $718,000 separation agreement for Clifford, who made the accusations against O'Halloran.
O'Halloran singled out Clifford in his resignation letter, claiming the former CEO made the accusations "as leverage" in a threat to sue Metra that resulted in the large settlement.
In an apparent reference to Madigan, O'Halloran wrote, "While I have been taking the heat, it seems the powerful politicians Mr. Clifford accused escaped the same level of criticism."
Numerous lawmakers had called for O'Halloran's ouster after the scandal broke, and news the chairman had been improperly accepting two stipends -- from Metra and Orland Park -- added to the pressure.
Cook County Commissioner Liz Doody Gorman, who appointed O'Halloran, said, "His intentions were good, but his position became untenable after the intense public scrutiny."
"This is the first step to turning the situation around," said Metra Director Jack Schaffer of Cary, who also was singled out in O'Halloran's letter.
Schaffer intended to call a vote on the chairmanship at an Aug. 16 meeting and Partelow said Wednesday it was time "for some corrective action regarding the chairman."
Now, "we have some very serious things to do -- the two principal posts in the organization are open," Partelow said, referring to the chairman and CEO spots. "The chairman's job appears to have been abused, but it's a very important job. We need to take action to get the organization back on foot."
Metra Director Paul Darley of Elmhurst resigned this week, saying "there are a lot of other places where I can invest my time and talents and won't involve Illinois politics." Earlier, former Director Mike McCoy of Aurora, considered an independent voice on the board, also stepped down.
O'Halloran is the second Metra chairman to resign in two years. Former Chairman Carole Doris stepped down in 2011, a year after CEO Phil Pagano killed himself amid a probe into financial misconduct.
O'Halloran and new CEO Clifford were seen as part of a reform effort at Metra, now mired in new controversy.
O'Halloran repeatedly insisted he was not involved in hiring at the agency.
"If we intended to deep-six this, we would have swept it under the rug," O'Halloran told the Daily Herald July 9. "I have never talked to staff or anyone in HR or the executive director about any individual for a job."
But Clifford's dramatic exit pitted his word against O'Halloran's. In an April 3 memo, Clifford accused O'Halloran and Metra Director Larry Huggins of retaliating against him when he refused to accede to a request from Madigan to give an employee and campaign contributor a raise in 2012.
In an unredacted copy of the April 3 memo exclusively obtained by the Daily Herald, Clifford charged that O'Halloran tried to fire or demote the agency's top attorney and its procurement chief, saying they were incompetent.
Clifford also claimed during an RTA hearing that O'Halloran had a conflict of interest over a bank contract involving Wintrust, which the trustee denied.
In his farewell letter, O'Halloran questioned why Clifford hadn't brought his concerns to authorities when they surfaced and criticized the CEO's handling of a fare increase, which he voted for.
"I cannot say with certainty why Mr. Clifford waited so long to report these incidents, although in my opinion it was related to the awareness of my dissatisfaction with his performance. My reaction was not to 'hush' anything up but rather to direct the matter immediately to the inspector general," he wrote.
Metra leaders are in the process of trying to schedule a special meeting soon to discuss the chairmanship issue, officials said.