CHICAGO – Illinois lawmakers demanding an explanation for a lucrative severance deal given to Metra’s former executive director want the public rail agency to allow him to speak freely and publicly about allegations that he was pushed out for resisting high-level political clout in personnel and contract decisions.
The Chicago metropolitan transit agency is getting pressure to let Alex Clifford out of the buyout’s confidentiality clause, which he says is being used to muzzle him, after the public release of a confidential memo he wrote that details allegations involving House Speaker Michael Madigan, one of Illinois’ most powerful politicians.
What began less than a week ago as an inquiry into whether the June 21 severance deal was a waste of taxpayer money has morphed into a potentially larger question: Whether a publicly funded agency still recovering from past scandal is engaged in improper dealings with politicians seeking favors.
“I believe that Metra ought to waive its confidentiality clause now,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat who’s taking part in the House Mass Transit Committee hearings. “We need to hear from Mr. Clifford as well because we need to get to the bottom of this and the taxpayers have a right to know.”
Clifford said in an email to The Associated Press over the weekend that he hoped to know early in the week whether Metra would allow him to appear before the committee or at a hearing scheduled by the Regional Transportation Authority.
The House committee heard from several Metra board members and their outside legal counsel Thursday. But they were angered that officials did not reveal the full scope of Clifford’s allegations, which only became clear later when the memo Clifford wrote to the Metra board April 3 – before his dismissal – was released late Friday at the committee’s request. Several passages were blacked out.
In the eight-page memo, Clifford recounts several alleged episodes of patronage politics and asks board members to back him against what he says are efforts to force him out for not playing along.
“It would be very unfortunate if someone who was hired to run Metra in accordance with the law after a major scandal were to be terminated because he did not play ball with politicians seeking political hiring, or go along with manipulating Metra contracts contrary to legal requirements,” Clifford wrote.
Clifford’s predecessor, Phil Pagano, was accused of defrauding the agency out of about $475,000. He killed himself by stepping in front of a Metra train.
Among Clifford’s accusations, he says Madigan pressed Metra staff to offer a pay raise to an employee who contributed more than $17,000 benefiting the speaker and his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Clifford said Madigan also pushed for a job for a person he did not name.
Michael Madigan has acknowledged recommending to Metra staff last year that they give the employee a raise, but his spokesman says the there was nothing improper about it. The spokesman said Madigan has no record of asking for the job in the second case Clifford mentions.
Clifford says in the memo that when he rejected the requested raise, a board member indicated it would be taken into account during deliberations over whether to renew Clifford’s employment contract.
“He told me that he needed to arrange a meeting with Speaker Madigan to assess ‘what damage I have done’ to Metra and its future funding by my refusal to accede to Speaker Madigan’s requests,” Clifford wrote in the memo.
Clifford’s allegations are being examined by the state’s executive inspector general, Ricardo Meza.
The RTA board, which has financial oversight of Metra, is also looking into the matter and has asked Clifford to appear before a special meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
Clifford says he wants to tell his side of the story but turned down an earlier request to appear before the House committee on Thursday. He said Metra warned him that if he were to answer questions fully, he might be violating their confidentiality agreement.
“We’re not hearing from Alex himself and that would be nice,” said Rep. Deb Mell, a Chicago Democrat who heads the committee. “I encouraged him to come and talk.”