Editorial: Metra report shows the politics still gripping Illinois

  • Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford

    Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted9/24/2014 1:01 AM

The latest information to surface regarding a 2013 Metra patronage scandal is instructive, especially for the public as it tries to decipher what really goes on behind the scenes in Illinois politics.

The $52,000 report, finished a year ago but only released in full this week after a lengthy freedom of information request fight, from former U.S. prosecutor Rodger Heaton concluded there was no evidence of illegal activity by former Metra CEO Alex Clifford or any board members, including former Chairman Brad O'Halloran.


However, as Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke reported Tuesday, there were no specific conclusions about the series of events that led Clifford to accuse the former chairman and another board member, Larry Huggins, of retaliating against Clifford for refusing to give a raise to a politically connected employee.

So we are left to surmise ourselves on what transpired. It seems clear to us, at least, that political influence was alive and well in these behind-the-scenes dealings.

Here's what we know: a former Metra employee, who is a friend and political contributor of powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, let Clifford know that he told Madigan he wanted to be making more money. And Madigan's staff confirms that the speaker did ask about getting the employee a raise but it was dropped when it was learned that Metra had a salary freeze at the time.

The question unanswered is why would Madigan, clearly the most powerful politician in the General Assembly and perhaps in the state, get involved? We can only surmise that it's a common practice for the state's politicians to look out for their friends. The public found out about this one because Clifford refused to play along.

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"Mr. Clifford takes a very black and white approach on this issue," Heaton's report says, adding that Clifford would not tolerate political influence in hiring.

Good for him. He told Pyke this week, "It is accurate to say that in my opinion there is no gray area when it comes to political patronage. Mr. O'Halloran and Mr. Huggins were clearly dissatisfied with my black and white approach to political patronage."

If only more leaders in Illinois government were as ethical in that regard.

We are pleased by Metra's new policy that requires any communications concerning jobs from a lawmaker or member of the public with a board member or employee be recorded on the agency's website.

That kind of transparency is needed, especially in this state where too much of the public's business has been done behind closed doors for far too long.

In this case, Metra spent nearly $663,000 in legal and public relations costs in the wake of the scandal -- in addition to payments to settle with Clifford that could reach nearly $900,000. That's a hefty price tag to clean up a mess self-inflicted by politicians who should know better.

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