Embattled Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran has resigned his post, becoming the third board member to quit amid allegations of political back-scratching at the commuter rail agency.
O'Halloran, 58, served as the face of the ongoing scandal as he spent much of July trying to explain a $718,000 severance package awarded to former Metra CEO Alex Clifford. The generous exit deal — which has a confidentiality clause and equaled nearly three times the CEO's annual salary — came after Clifford wrote a memo blaming his downfall on his refusal to acquiesce to patronage requests.
The memo, which Metra officials tried for months to keep secret, has undergone intense public scrutiny and now serves as a critical piece of evidence in multiple investigations into Clifford's departure. Several lawmakers demanded O'Halloran's resignation as a result, while newspaper headlines have hammered him for initially downplaying the seriousness of Clifford's allegations.
In his resignation letter Thursday, O'Halloran said he no longer can lead amid the "media and political frenzy."
"I have come to the sad conclusion that, so long as I am Chairman as a member of the board, the truly critical issues facing Metra will be left aside while the focus remains on the next big headline or attention-grabbing quotation," he wrote.
Clifford declined comment Thursday.
O'Halloran also resigned Thursday from the Orland Park Village Board, where he has served since 1993.
His Metra departure drew applause from several critics, including fellow board member Jack Schaffer of McHenry County. Schaffer, who voted against the severance package, has repeatedly referred to the deal as "hush money."
"I've said for weeks that in order to fix this mess, the first thing we needed was a change in the chairman's position," Schaffer said. "Brad O'Halloran had to go."
O'Halloran was appointed to the Metra board of directors in 2011 as the agency was struggling to escape the controversy over a vacation-pay scheme that ended with the suicide of Metra boss Phil Pagano. After the board's chairwoman resigned, a drawn-out power struggle led to O'Halloran's selection as chairman in fall 2012.
Months later he found himself embroiled in an even bigger political embarrassment for the agency — and this time it involved arguably the most powerful man in Illinois politics, House Speaker Michael Madigan. What began as a small uproar over a CEO's severance package soon boiled over into a political spectacle filled with allegations of patronage demands, hush money and questionable contracts.
O'Halloran has described Clifford's allegations as "a lot of hooey." In appearances before the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee and the Regional Transportation Authority board, he has insisted that Clifford leveled patronage claims only after learning that his contract might not be renewed and that the severance package was cheaper than the cost of a whistle-blower lawsuit.
Before the memo's release, O'Halloran told the Tribune his name did not appear in Clifford's document. In reality, it appears repeatedly — many times in connection to Madigan's request that one of his political foot soldiers be given a raise at his Metra job.
Clifford contends that Madigan asked twice about the raise and was rebuffed both times. Madigan has said he did nothing wrong in asking about the raise. But Clifford maintains that O'Halloran made the snub of the speaker an issue in his contract talks.
"When I asked Mr. O'Halloran about the status of discussions to consider my renewing my employment contract, he told me 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," Clifford wrote in the memo.
O'Halloran also angered some members of the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee, which is investigating the severance package, by downplaying Clifford's allegations against him before the memorandum was released. When the document was made public, several committee members said they felt deceived and pushed a resolution calling for his ouster.
"It was to the point where he no longer had the public trust," said Rep. Mike Tryon of Crystal Lake, the committee's Republican spokesman, after hearing of O'Halloran's resignation.
Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman, who appointed O'Halloran to the Metra board and also lives in Orland Park, said the chairman has been "very stressed" by all the criticism and scrutiny in recent weeks.
The Tribune reported this week that O'Halloran received $22,000 in salary from the Orland Park board while serving Metra, despite a state law banning Metra board members from receiving a paycheck from another government post. He sought to return the money.
"At the end of the day, (O'Halloran) had made some decisions that were obviously questionable, and things mushroomed from there," Orland Park Mayor Daniel McLaughlin said, adding he believed O'Halloran had "his heart in the right place."
By law, Metra's board needs a supermajority of eight members to approve significant actions, such as hiring a new executive director. With the recent resignations of board members Mike McCoy of Kane County and Paul Darley of DuPage County, the panel has the bare minimum of members needed to approve important decisions.
Vice Chairman Jack Partelow will take over the top leadership role. Partelow, a retired business executive, represents Will County.
He said Metra may hold a meeting before the next scheduled session Aug. 16 to deal with leadership at the agency. The board will have to name an acting chairman, who could play a key role in picking the next CEO.
Metra is being run by two deputy executive directors, Alex Wiggins for administration and Don Orseno for operations. Partelow believes the agency should be run by only one person and is opposed to hiring an independent investigator to scrutinize the Clifford deal, an idea that O'Halloran was pushing.
"I think there are enough investigations going on and enough money was already spent on investigations," Partelow said.
Tribune reporters Stacy St. Clair and Joseph Ryan contributed.Copyright © 2015, RedEye