When Metra CEO Alex Clifford asked about his chances for keeping his job, he received a bruising reply from the rail agency's board chairman, according to a memo that offers a snapshot of political clout as allegedly practiced in Illinois.
Clifford had displeased Metra board Chairman Brad O'Halloran by denying requests for jobs, raises or contracts for friends of House Speaker Michael Madigan and other influential politicians, the April 3 memo alleged.
According to Clifford's written account, O'Halloran believed that saying no to Madigan was serious enough to threaten funding for the commuter agency, which carries 300,000 riders daily in the Chicago area.
"When I asked Mr. O'Halloran about the status of discussions to consider renewing my 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 future funding by my refusal to accede to Speaker Madigan's requests," the memo reads.
Clifford's explosive document, which he sent to board members before his controversial June 21 ouster, depicts a transit agency besieged by political pressures to show favoritism in hiring and contracts — while top board members such as O'Halloran sided with politicians.
"Clout" is hardly a new concept in Chicago, but the memo Friday offered a rare, richly detailed glimpse of alleged attempts by powerful politicians to call the shots at an agency created to serve the riding public.
The eight-page memo has figured prominently in the ongoing investigation of Clifford's removal from Metra's helm and the severance package of about $719,000 he received — a payout one frustrated board member has described as "hush money."
The memorandum, which has not been released publicly, was turned over Friday to the House Mass Transit Committee after lawmakers pressed for its release. For weeks, the agency had asserted the memo was protected by the severance package's controversial confidentiality agreement and denied Freedom of Information Act requests for its release.
In the memo, Clifford invoked the name of his attorney Michael Shakman — who has become synonymous with the fight against political patronage in Illinois. Shakman represented Clifford in the negotiations that led to his golden parachute severance package.
Since 1969, Shakman has challenged one of the most enduring traditions in Chicago politics: hiring based on clout. A series of court orders in the 1970s and '80s, commonly known as the Shakman decrees, formally ended patronage in scores of city and state offices.
Dick Simpson, a political science expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said patronage in Illinois was dealt a strong blow by the Shakman decrees but won't be eradicated until machine politics have been eliminated.
Patronage at Metra has been a "continuing pattern" over the years, he said. "The previous executive director (Phil Pagano) committed suicide because of corruption in the agency. Patronage, nepotism and corruption go together with machine politics."
Simpson said he wasn't surprised that Madigan would be accused of trying to clout a political ally into a job.
"Mike Madigan is first and foremost a ward committeeman and political boss, even before his role as speaker," Simpson said.
Other critics say they are not surprised that allegations are being raised at Metra, an agency that acquired a reputation as a haven for Republican patronage after it was created in 1983.
"It's no secret that Metra is a repository of patronage," said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, who has been one of Metra's most vocal critics.
State Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, agreed.
"To remove the CEO, who is supposedly nonpolitical and professional ... by the board, a political entity, almost smacks of political interference," Harris said.
For decades, the agency's chairmen were Republicans: first Jeffrey Ladd from McHenry County and then Carole Doris from DuPage County.
Pagano, the former longtime executive director, flourished under their chairmanships until he was caught in 2010 taking $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay and forging Doris' signature to cover it up. Pagano committed suicide May 10, 2010, and Clifford was hired from Los Angeles in 2011 as the new sheriff to "clean up Dodge City," as his proponents described the former Marine.
Metra's 11 board members are political appointees, named by chairmen from the collar counties, the city of Chicago, and by the Cook County board president and suburban commissioners.
The most recent change in board leadership came in November when the political powers directed their appointees to select O'Halloran as chairman.
Board member Larry Huggins, a South Side contractor, was appointed to Metra's board by former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. O'Halloran, who was appointed by the suburban Cook County Commissioners, was re-elected in April as a village trustee in Orland Park. Although a Republican, he has had ties with former Mayor Richard M. Daley ally Jeremiah Joyce, a Democratic Party operative and former South Side alderman.
"That's what we need to clean out and change," Franks said. "These folks are appointed. If they were elected ... we'd have more accountability."
In an interview with the Tribune only days after writing his blistering memo, Clifford said he had repeatedly rejected pressure to hire employees based on patronage.
"I've said 'no' more than one time," he said, adding that patronage "is not going to happen under my watch. It hasn't happened once, and it won't happen."
But his watch would be cut short. When he complained about the political interference he perceived, O'Halloran and former acting Chairman Huggins added to the pressure and sought to oust him, Clifford wrote.
In one example, Clifford wrote that in March 2012, Madigan contacted Metra lobbyist Tom Cullen, a former top staffer in the speaker's office, and informed Cullen that he wanted Patrick Ward, a labor relations specialist with the agency, to receive a raise. The speaker also asked that another unnamed individual be given a job, Clifford wrote.
Clifford said he ordered his staff not to respond to the requests. But the issue resurfaced six months later when then-acting Chairman Huggins said the speaker wanted Ward to be given a pay increase. Again, Clifford refused the request, which prompted an argument with Huggins, according to the memo.
Madigan acknowledged Thursday that his office recommended that Ward, who made $57,000 annually, receive a merit adjustment based on his education level and job performance. That was despite a salary freeze for noncontract employees amid budget constraints.
In his memo, Clifford also related a March 2012 meeting he and Huggins had with state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, and members of the Latino Caucus in Springfield. Clifford said Arroyo mentioned a vacant deputy position and asked if he would hire someone recommended by his caucus.
"I told him that Metra would follow its normal hiring procedures," Clifford wrote.
While Huggins agreed with Arroyo's request, several other board members said Clifford should not give in to that political pressure, he wrote.
The memo also alleges that Huggins tried to circumvent federal bidding laws for a $93 million railroad bridge on the South Side known as the Englewood Flyover.
Though Metra met its legal obligation for minority contracts on the project, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, was threatening to block the project because he said it didn't provide enough jobs for the economically depressed neighborhood.
Clifford contends that Huggins held up approval of the low-bid contract, attempting to first sway him to insist that the contractor hire more African-Americans for the project, or terminate it. When Clifford refused, saying it would violate laws to insist one particular minority be given more work, he alleges Huggins went around him. Huggins met with community leaders, and they put pressure on the contractor to create a "memorandum of understanding" that would add a "significant number of additional African American sub-contractors," Clifford wrote.
As part of those negotiations, Huggins also allegedly "arranged with congressman Rush or his staff for Metra to pay a third party $50,000 for services related to the Englewood Flyover." After Clifford said he would not approve that expenditure without board approval and raised questions about what that work would entail, asking for detailed plans, the plan was eventually abandoned, he wrote.
Throughout the memo, Clifford said the alleged efforts of politicians or Metra officials to dictate hiring and firings, negotiate outside contracts or otherwise interfere in his work at the agency violated various laws, such as the Regional Transportation Authority Act that defined his duties and federal laws including those that govern the fair awarding of contracts.
Neither O'Halloran nor Huggins responded Friday to phone calls from the Tribune. But in a statement released by Metra's media relations department, the two officials denied Clifford's allegations. In his testimony Thursday before the House committee, Metra attorney Joseph Gagliardo minimized the allegations raised in Clifford's memo.
In the last paragraphs of the memo, Clifford warned it would be unfortunate if the board fired him because he "did not play ball with politicians seeking political hiring, or go along with manipulating Metra contracts contrary to legal requirements." Still, he attempted to strike a note of collaboration.
"We have come a long way together to put the crisis of 2010 behind us," he wrote. "As you know, we still have much to do."
After sending the memo to the Metra board, Clifford's attorney also sent a notice to the board of his intent to sue if he was wrongfully terminated.
The board voted to grant Clifford the hefty severance package last month.Copyright © 2015, RedEye