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Resignations amid Metra patronage allegations

Former Metra chief Alex Clifford claims he was forced out of his position because he resisted political pressure from House Speaker Mike Madigan and others to hand out patronage jobs or give raises to politically-connected Metra employees.

Clifford got a $718,000 buyout last month after he threatened to sue over his firing.

Since Clifford’s buyout, Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran and three board members have resigned.

Metra’s vice chairman Jack Partelow of Will County will assume O’Halloran’s duties.

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Alex Clifford, the former CEO of Metra who resigned last month, has alleged Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan of attempting to influence decisions of the transit agency.

In an eight-page memo acquired by the Chicago Tribune, Clifford accuses Madigan of attempting to give a raise to labor relations specialist Patrick Ward while Metra had frozen all salary increases. The Tribune says records show that Ward has worked for Madigan campaigns for over 15 years and that he has donated over $17,000 to campaign funds of Madigan or his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.


Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan.

Clifford’s memo stated, “[Ward] 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. I told Mr. Ward that his conduct in this regard was inappropriate.”

Clifford’s memo later said that he jeopardized his job by rejecting to give Ward a raise.

Within the memo, Clifford also accuses Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran and former chairman and current Metra board member Larry Huggins of conspiring to remove him from power. Clifford also stated that O’Halloran and Huggins had criticized him for not compromising for the demands of lawmakers and attempted to use his non-partisan actions as reasons to not renew his contract.

O’Halloran and Huggins both released statements denying Clifford’s accusations.

“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. 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.”

Said Huggins, “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.”

The memo, which was received by Metra on April 3 but not released until Friday, may also provide context about Clifford’s severance package. At least one Metra board member has said that Clifford’s $718,000 severance was “hush money” to keep his allegations about Madigan private.

The Chicago Tribune could not reach Ward, who is no longer with Metra, for comment. Madigan has yet to comment on the issue.

Metra board members accused of patronage attempts from ousted C.E.O. Alex Clifford were allowed to vote on his giant severance package.

Metra attorney Joseph Gagliardo said at a hearing Wednesday the accused members did not participate in settlement negotiations, so there was no problem with them voting on the deal.

The parting deal came after Clifford said he was pressured on hiring and contract issues.

Clifford received a $740,000 severance package.

Chairman Brad O’Halloran read a prepared statement about Clifford’s departure.

Alex Clifford was recruited from Los Angeles to clean up Metra after his disgraced predecesor Phil Pagano committed suicide.  Today Clifford resigned and in doing so will accept a buyout of $442,000 which will cover his salary for the rest of his contract and other benefits.

Said DePaul transportation professor Joe Schwieterman, “The severance is dramatic considering the cash situation at Metra”

Schwieterman describes Alex Clifford as a good leader.  He says Clifford had to make some tough moves to get Metra back on track.

Said Schwieterman, “I think he made some hard decisions that had to be made, they weren’t popular with the board, (like) two back to back fare increases (and) getting rid of the 10 ride ticket. I think they made a mistake here, but time will tell.”

Prior to the board’s vote to approve Clifford’s departure, board chairman Brad O’Halloran said, “In discussing how Metra moves forward, it became clear there were differences of opinion with respect to what we need (in) leading this organization.”

As for Clifford’s costly severance package, O’Halloran said, “While we want every dollar possible to go directly to serving our passengers, this payment is a small price to pay for future goals of garnering more state and federal investment in Metra and taking Metra in a different direction.”

Metra spokesman Michael Gillis says customers will not see any immediate changes as a result of today’s news. Says Gillis, “We still have the same people in place running operations (and) customer service will continue to be a priority.”

As for Clifford’s replacement, Prof. Schwieterman says he thinks the board should once again bring in someone from the outside.

“I think that’s what our region needs,” he said. “We have a lot of bad feelings among CTA, Metra, PACE…that needs to be fixed to run a better system.”