Editorial: Metra board should resign
Ousted Metra CEO tells his story, and it’s not pretty
July 18, 2013
Round 2 of the Metra inquest before the Regional Transportation Authority went as expected on Wednesday: more stories of political meddling at the commuter rail system, more denials from board members who tried to keep the whole mess secret from the start.
Ousted CEO Alex Clifford’s version is far more convincing, and not just because he wanted to come clean and his bosses on the board didn’t. Clifford’s account — the basis of a threatened whistle-blower lawsuit — is so rich in damning detail that Metra agreed to a $718,000 separation package to avoid going to court.
To collect that money, Clifford had to agree to a mutual gag order. That came undone when taxpayers learned that Metra was buying the CEO’s silence with their money.
So here are the highlights of what Clifford said Wednesday. (For the record, Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran called it “a whole lot of hooey.”)
•Besides lobbying senior Metra officials to grant a pay raise to an employee who was a longtime campaign donor, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan relayed requests for the agency to hire one crony for an unspecified union job and to promote another from customer service supervisor to conductor. The requests weren’t accompanied by any supporting arguments, Clifford said, “not that it would have made a difference.”
Clifford repeated his claim that O’Halloran and Metra board member Larry Huggins were angry that he refused to make personnel moves dictated by Madigan. On Wednesday, O’Halloran vehemently denied that he suggested Clifford’s actions could hurt Metra’s funding.
•Under questioning from RTA board members, Clifford revealed that two employees O’Halloran wanted him to replace were Metra’s general counsel, on whose legal opinions Clifford relied when he protested Huggins’ interference in the $93 million Englewood Flyover contract, and the chief procurement officer.
•Clifford also said he’d reported to the Office of the Executive Inspector General that Huggins had engineered a $200,000 no-bid “community outreach” contract with a firm owned by a business associate. The contract, awarded before Clifford was hired, was terminated because the firm was over budget and far from finished with its work, Clifford said.
•As Metra prepared to bid a banking services contract, Clifford said, O’Halloran insisted on adding Wintrust to the list of possible respondents; the procurement chief later pointed out that O’Halloran sits on the board of a Wintrust subsidiary.
•Apropos of almost nothing, this little detail emerged: At Metra, state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez’s husband works for state Rep. Luis Arroyo’s daughter.
Offered a microphone to rebut Clifford’s statements, Team Metra mostly tried to change the subject again, offering a belated indictment of Clifford’s job performance. That would have been a good conversation to have before they set about drumming up the votes to deny him a contract extension.
The theme of Metra officials’ narrative has been that Clifford trumped up a case against them because he was worried his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Why didn’t he report all of this sooner?
Clifford’s answer: Because he believed he was hired to put a stop to that business, believed he was doing so by resisting all that pressure, believed the Metra board had his back.
When the House Latino caucus asked if it could make a recommendation for a key hire, for example, Clifford explained that anyone who got a job at Metra had to come “through the front door.” When he related the incident later, he said, board members — except for Huggins — applauded his response. (O’Halloran was not yet on the board.)
So what’s up with the rest of the Metra board? The eight members who joined O’Halloran in approving the hush-money deal have been ducking questions ever since that vote. (Board member Jack Schaffer was the only “no” vote. Huggins voted “present.”)
We’ve seen little to suggest they were unhappy with Clifford’s job performance but plenty of evidence that they were aware of the behind-the-scenes acrimony involving O’Halloran and Huggins. One board member gave Clifford a heads-up that there weren’t enough votes to renew his contract, then joined in the vote to send him packing.
Four of them have since written letters of recommendation to help him find a new job.
What good are any of them? They’re supposed to be keeping the trains running, not taking care of politicians and their pals. But they’re patronage employees themselves, handpicked by pols. They do what they’re told in return for the paychecks they’re clearly not earning. Getting rid of them is a nightmare; we learned that after the last scandal, which seems like yesterday. It takes eight board members to oust one, and it’s not even clear whether the pols who appoint them can replace them mid-term. All of this is leading, once again, to talk about a legislative overhaul of the entire four-headed transit system.
Board members, save us all a lot of grief. Resign.