Metra's chairman, under fire for giving a cushy severance package to the agency's top executive, on Tuesday criticized Alex Clifford's leadership and said the ousted CEO only leveled corruption allegations after learning his contract might not be renewed.
On the eve of a public grilling over the deal, Chairman Brad O'Halloran defended the controversial — and largely secret — $740,000 severance package he and other Metra board members gave to Clifford.
O'Halloran, in an interview Tuesday with the Tribune, lashed out at critics of the deal.
"Regarding Mr. Clifford's separation agreement, there have been a lot of aspersions cast at me and the board," O'Halloran said. "The problem is most of the critics have been flat-out wrong."
Unsatisfied with Metra's public explanations for Clifford's severance package, which included a secrecy clause that bars both sides from talking about certain aspects of it, the Regional Transportation Authority asked O'Halloran to appear before a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the arrangement. State legislators also have summoned O'Halloran, for Thursday.
In an email Tuesday, Clifford told the Tribune that O'Halloran's statements were not accurate, but he would not address specific allegations.
The chairman criticized Clifford on several fronts, including the agency's decision to hike the cost of 10-ride tickets and approve a $93 million contract for a railroad bridge on the South Side known as the Englewood Flyover. O'Halloran called the fare increase a "bad idea" that he said will be reconsidered.
O'Halloran also outlined a new version of events leading to the CEO's departure and said the problem began when Clifford short-circuited a formal evaluation of his job performance.
Reading a statement to the Tribune, O'Halloran said an unnamed board member approached Clifford in early March and informed the CEO that his contract might not be renewed. Clifford, who was paid $252,000 a year to oversee one of the nation's largest commuter rail systems, then asked for a new contract and O'Halloran said he refused.
"Also, surprisingly, Mr. Clifford (then) told this board member that he was being retaliated against for his refusal to go along with politically motivated patronage and contract requests," O'Halloran said.
O'Halloran said he forwarded to the state inspector general's office the allegations as well as those outlined in an April memo from Clifford to the board. Metra also hired a former central Illinois U.S. attorney, Rodger Heaton, to review the allegations. Metra's legal counsel has refused to release the document detailing the allegations requested by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act.
In late spring, the board decided it had to reach a financial settlement with Clifford instead of just letting his contract run out, O'Halloran said. The chairman said he believed the accusations to be meritless.
"He told us he was going to sue irregardless," O'Halloran said.
In his email Tuesday, Clifford said his lawyers are in discussions with Metra's attorneys about what he can say under the separation agreement — both to the agencies with oversight of Metra, and in response to O'Halloran's comments.
Clifford expressed hope that he would be allowed to address the criticism. "If Mr. O'Halloran's statements were accurate, one would expect Metra not to object to my responding to them," he said in his email.
The golden parachute, which prevents Clifford from filing a lawsuit against the agency, includes a secrecy provision that prohibits either side from disclosing the reasons for the publicly funded settlement. A clause in that provision, however, makes an exception for "entities with oversight, legislative or other authority over Metra." That loophole opens the door for the RTA to air the controversy publicly.
The RTA, which serves as Metra's oversight authority, has launched an inquiry into the deal "to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being expended properly."
O'Halloran, accompanied by Metra's lawyer, Andrew Greene, offered a tightly scripted preview of his planned remarks.
He mentioned the 10-ride ticket decision and the Englewood Flyover contract, which was approved in 2012.
Both the fare hike and the bridge contract were approved by Metra's board. Even though he voted for the fare hike, O'Halloran said the decision was a mistake and that the board would reconsider the move.
"It was misguided policy," O'Halloran said. "It's like New Coke. It was a bad idea. We're going back to Old Coke."
Metra's board approved the railroad bridge contract despite a threat from U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, to block the project because he said it didn't provide enough jobs for the economically depressed Englewood neighborhood. Clifford and Metra administrators insisted state and federal rules were followed to the letter in awarding the contract.
O'Halloran refused to answer many questions regarding the separation agreement, but promised to be more forthcoming before the RTA. He denied that the severance deal was intended to buy Clifford's silence over the unspecified "allegations" raised by Clifford.
"The most reckless charge that's been made is that we paid Clifford hush money," O'Halloran said.
Metra's board voted 9-1 in June to approve the separation agreement and accept Clifford's resignation. Metra and Clifford agreed to a deal giving him a $442,237 buyout, covering salary for the rest of his contract, a severance payment, including two 3 percent raises, health insurance and relocation and attorney fees.
Metra also may have to pay Clifford up to $300,000 if he doesn't find another job within 12 months, the agreement says.
O'Halloran reiterated his previous contention that the severance agreement with Clifford was necessary to avoid a protracted and costly legal battle.
It was not possible, he said, simply to allow Clifford's contract to expire and let him walk away from the agency next February.
The agency hired Clifford in 2011 to clean up after the vacation pay scandal involving former Executive Director Phil Pagano.
The RTA said Tuesday that it did not invite Clifford to attend Wednesday's meeting, but Clifford said he had been invited to testify Thursday at the meeting of the House Mass Transit committee.
Clifford said he had not decided if he would appear.
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