Metra could hire ex-federal prosecutor for probe of Alex Clifford memo

July 19, 2013 (CHICAGO)

The public agency's board of directors will vote Monday on whether to approve hiring Patrick Collins, who prosecuted the case that sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison for corruption.

The allegations involving Metra emerged during inquiries into a lucrative buyout for former CEO Alex Clifford.

Clifford says he was forced out of the agency for resisting pressure from House Speaker Michael Madigan and others over jobs and construction contracts.

Madigan says he recommended a Metra employee for a pay raise but backed off after learning Clifford was uncomfortable about his involvement.

The employee was a contributor to campaigns benefiting the house speaker.

State legislators are also investigating.

A memo by Clifford took center stage during last week's hearings before a legislative panel reviewing his resignation and $718,000 severance. It details allegations involving House Speaker Michael Madigan and other politicians.

In the memo, Clifford recounted alleged episodes of patronage politics and asked board members to back him against efforts to force him out for not cooperating.

Clifford says Wednesday he informed Metra's board about the incidents when they occurred. He also says Metra initiated the severance settlement, not him.

Clifford told the board that he has nothing to hide. This is the first time he has addressed the patronage allegations he raised in the April 3 memo. On Wednesday, Clifford questioned the speaker's character.

"I felt this was a moral and ethical personality flaw. I felt if I did not take part... I thought I had the board on my side," Clifford said.

Clifford says the high figure for his severance is justified based on his inability to be hired after he alleges the Metra board damaged his reputation.

"From my perspective, it is 100 percent about my ability to get a job and how I have been damaged," he said.

The 11 Metra board members are mostly suburbanites. They serve four-year terms from their various, individual appointment dates.

The Chicago mayor names one member; the Cook County president another. The Cook County Board appoints four members while county governments in DuPage, Kane, Will, Lake and McHenry each name one person.

"The Metra board is quite political in terms of the appointees," said Prof. Joe Schwieterman, DePaul University.

Schweiterman said he was not surprised by Clifford's allegation that Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Madigan asked that Clifford give a raise to an employee who was also a Madigan campaign donor.

"Mr. Clifford ran into a buzz saw here because there's a sense that some of the appointees feel that they need to push for their share of the bacon, you might say, and the politics become fierce," said Schwieterman.

Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran, who wanted Clifford fired, is paid $25,000 a year by the railroad. Board members get $15,000 annually. All receive health insurance and a pension program.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked about his confidence level as it pertains to Metra.

"There will be an effort at Metra to make the changes that are necessary. That's for their board," Emanuel said.

The Illinois inspector general has been asked to determine, among other issues, whether Clifford's severance pay was "hush money" to keep him quiet about the Madigan link and other political patronage at Metra. Professor Schwieterman says the embattled board's immediate challenge is to find someone to replace Clifford.

"The board can't have it both ways. We can't have a powerbroker and somebody who's shining a flashlight to clean up the dirty stuff," Schwieterman said.

Metra lawyers have agreed to allow Clifford to testify before the Regional Transportation Authority Wednesday morning despite Clifford having signed a confidentiality agreement as part of the severance settlement.

Legislative inspector general Thomas Homer insisted he would investigate the allegations concerning Speaker Madigan.

"He's a member of the Illinois General Assembly just like the other 117 members," said Thomas Homer.

Metra board chairman Brad Halloran said Clifford did not report the alleged Madigan-related incidents until after Clifford learned he was being fired. Clifford's testimony was limited by Metra lawyers who would not allow him to discuss issues not mentioned in the April 3rd memo.

"People have asked whether the events described in the april 3rd memo are all the possible improprieties during my time at Metra. Again, without Metra's consent, I will not be able to answer that question," said Clifford.

Metra board chairman O'Halloran and member Larry Huggins also testified. O'Halloran called Clifford's claims "absurd" and Huggins denied interfering with and steering railroad contracts toward Huggins' business partners.

Not only was the legislative inspector general in the audience, the Illinois inspector general was also at the RTA hearing. He'll decide if any of this should be referred to criminal prosecutors.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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