Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford contends his refusal to capitulate to House Speaker Michael Madigan's patronage demands angered some agency board members and ultimately led to his downfall, according to a memorandum obtained by the Tribune.
The eight-page memo — which the agency repeatedly had refused to release — contains allegations far more damning than Metra officials have suggested in recent days and raises new questions about how the commuter rail service operates in clout-friendly Illinois.
The memorandum has been portrayed as the proverbial smoking gun amid multiple investigations into Clifford's ouster and the $718,000 severance package that accompanied it. At least one Metra board member has described the deal as "hush money" to prevent the allegations detailed in the memo from becoming public.
"It underscores the reason why we needed (the memo) in the first place," said Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who is on the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee investigating the severance settlement. "Now there are even more questions that need to be answered."
Sent to the board April 3, the memo levies previously undisclosed allegations against Chairman Brad O'Halloran and former Chairman Larry Huggins, who remains on the board. Claiming the two conspired to remove him, Clifford said O'Halloran and Huggins criticized him at different times for not acquiescing to lawmakers.
The memo also alleges that O'Halloran ordered Clifford to fire at least two employees — an accusation not mentioned at public hearings on the severance package this week.
O'Halloran denied the allegations in a statement Friday, but did not say why he omitted them while appearing before the Regional Transportation Authority board or the Mass Transit Committee.
"As I testified yesterday, I deny Mr. Clifford's allegations, but, out of an abundance of caution, immediately forwarded all of his claims to the inspector general," O'Halloran said. "I have never intervened with Metra's staff regarding any jobs or contracts."
Metra released the memorandum to the Mass Transit Committee on Friday, under intense pressure from lawmakers to do so. Despite the agency's original assertion that the document was protected by the severance package's confidentiality clause, some legislators threatened to subpoena the memo if the agency refused to turn it over.
"The taxpayers are outraged, and they should be," Rep. Deb Mell, chairwoman of the committee, said Friday. "This needed to come out."
The memo suggests Clifford repeatedly resisted patronage pressure and that no refusal was more damaging to his career than his Madigan rebuke.
In March 2012, Madigan contacted Metra lobbyist Tom Cullen — a former top staffer in the speaker's office — and informed him that he wanted Patrick Ward, a labor relations specialist with the agency, to receive a raise, according to the memo.
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-Chairman Huggins said the speaker wanted Ward to be given a pay increase. The memo states Clifford refused the request, which prompted an argument with Huggins.
Madigan has said his office recommended that Ward, who made $57,000 annually, receive a merit adjustment based on his education level and job performance. At the time, the agency had frozen salary increases for all noncontract employees amid budget constraints.
After learning about Madigan's renewed request, Clifford wrote that he asked Ward why he was getting pressure from the speaker about the man's salary.
"Mr. Ward said that his family had supported Mr. Madigan for many years and worked on his political campaigns," the memo states. "He said that he had discussed his Metra employment with Mr. Madigan at a Madigan political event, where he told Mr. Madigan that he felt underpaid."
Records show that Ward has worked for Madigan campaigns for more than 15 years. He also donated more than $17,000 to campaign funds controlled by Madigan or his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Madigan has said he withdrew his request shortly after Ward's meeting with Clifford.
Ward could not be reached for comment. Public records show he left Metra and now earns $70,000 annually as a labor relations specialist with the state.
The memo alleges that Clifford jeopardized his job by rejecting Madigan.
"When I asked Mr. O'Halloran about the status of discussions to consider my 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."
O'Halloran told the House panel that he knew nothing about the Madigan incident until shortly before he received the memorandum. His timeline is in keeping with Metra's position that Clifford levied the patronage complaint only because he thought his contract would not be renewed.
O'Halloran — who repeatedly denied being named in the memo during a Tribune interview earlier this week — voted to approve the $718,000 severance deal after Clifford threatened to file a whistle-blower lawsuit if he could not reach a financial settlement with the agency. Huggins voted present.
The memo also alleges that, among other things, 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 responded to the threats by devising a plan to pay a third party $50,000 for services related to the project. After Clifford raised questions, the plan was eventually abandoned, he wrote.
Neither O'Halloran nor Huggins responded to requests for comment Friday. Huggins, who declined an invitation to answer questions from the House committee, issued a statement Friday denying any improper conduct.
"I categorically deny Clifford's allegations, and I am especially concerned with his claims regarding my efforts to resolve the community concerns with minority business and employment participation in the Englewood Flyover project," Huggins said. "Everything I did to help resolve that controversy with members of Congress was done in concert with federal and state transportation officials and legal counsel."
Meanwhile on Friday, the RTA announced it would call another special meeting Wednesday to discuss Clifford's severance deal.