By Jamey Dunn
In the wake of the legislature’s inspector general announcing an investigation into whether Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan tried to use his clout to influence Metra personnel decisions, Madigan has issued a letter denying any wrongdoing
Alex Clifford, the former chief executive officer of the Chicago suburban commuter rail service, claims that Madigan asked that a Metra employee be given a raise. Clifford said he was pressured by members of the Metra board to give Patrick Ward, a Madigan donor and then-Metra employee, a pay increase and to promote another employee. Ward now works in Gov. Pat Quinn's administration at a job for which Madigan recommended him.
Clifford said at a hearing this week that he thinks Madigan’s actions were “a character flaw, both ethically and morally.” But since neither the raise nor the promotion were given, he does not think that “the law was broken.”
Madigan sent a letter today to Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer and members of the General Assembly’s Legislative Ethics Commission saying he encourages the investigation and that his office will cooperate. “I have reviewed the facts surrounding the issue, and I am confident that my actions were not inappropriate or violative of any applicable law or ethical rule,” Madigan wrote. Homer has said he plans to investigate Clifford's claims.
Clifford also says other lawmakers tried to influence Metra hiring practices and that the board mishandled contracts while he was on leave for treatment of thyroid cancer.
RTA board members deny that they pressured Clifford, who left earlier this year with a more then $700,000 settlement that also came with a confidentiality agreement. They say Clifford only raised such concerns after it became clear that his contract with Metra would not be renewed. “I deny Mr. Clifford’s allegations, but out of an abundance of caution, immediately forwarded all of his claims to the inspector general,” Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran said in a written statement. “I have never intervened with Metra’s staff regarding any jobs or contracts. The board attempted a fair and unbiased review process for Mr. Clifford that was upended by his threatened legal strategy, which resulted in the settlement.” The Regional Transportation Authority is auditing Clifford’s severance deal.
The Metra board is bringing in former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, who led the investigation against former Gov. George Ryan, to look into Clifford’s claims and make recommendations for tightening the agencies hiring and contract policies. Collins is scheduled to report his finding to the board at a public hearing in 90 days. “Patrick Collins has an unquestioned reputation for integrity, honesty and fighting corruption,” O’Halloran said. “I look forward to an unflinching report which makes recommendations that help the agency restore confidence with riders, taxpayers and the communities we serve.” UPDATE Monday July 22: Collins will not be heading the investigation because of a potential conflict of interest tied to his law firm Perkins Colie. “I am personally disappointed that Patrick Collins cannot undertake this endeavor,” O’Halloran said in a prepared statement. “I felt he would have done an excellent job. I remain committed to interviewing other lawyers with outstanding reputations and investigative skills, and to once again ask the board for its approval.”
Meanwhile some lawmakers are calling for the ousting of the entire Metra board. “I've seen enough. ... It's time to blow up the board at Metra,” Sen. Kirk Dillard told the Daily Herald last weekend. “It's not just hiring — it's on-time performance, mechanical breakdowns and a bad rollout of the fare increase.” Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican is also running for governor.
Marengo Democratic Rep. Jack Franks called for the board members’ resignations after none of them showed up to testify before a legislative committee last week. “They have no business being in the public trust.