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Emanuel questions RTA oversight in Metra patronage mess

Updated: July 24, 2013 5:09PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday accused the RTA board of being asleep at the switch when the Metra patronage scandal exploded.

Emanuel deflected blame to the RTA board when asked whether he still has confidence in Larry Huggins, the city’s representative on the embattled Metra board.

During an RTA hearing last week on ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford’s $718,000 severance deal, Clifford accused his dead predecessor Phil Pagano of steering a no-bid contract to a firm owned by a Huggins business partner.

“There’s obviously some [investigative] work to be done here. For me to draw a conclusion before that work is done would be wrong,” the mayor said, when asked whether he plans to dump Huggins.

“I would like to also say that there’s an RTA board that’s supposed to have some oversight. I would like to know what they were doing while this was going on.”

Asked why he was pointing the finger at the RTA board for the patronage scandal swirling around Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), Emanuel said, “I’m not calling them out. I’m making an observation. ... They have an oversight. That’s what the RTA does, right?”

Some have questioned the need for an RTA board. They’d like to abolish it or merge it with another transit planning organization. Emanuel was asked whether he was prepared to join that movement.

“That’s a question that will be for others [to answer]. I’m not gonna do it right here. ... But there’s an open question,” he said.

“They need to investigate. Get to the bottom of it. But even when they get to the bottom of it, [we need to ask], `How did this happen?’ “

As Chicago’s mayor, Emanuel gets five appointments to the 16-member RTA board.

He recently appointed Sarah Pang, the onetime deputy chief of staff under former Mayor Richard M. Daley who served as an important player on Emanuel’s transition team and was instrumental in the selection of Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.

During last week’s RTA hearing on a severance deal critics have characterized as “hush money,” Clifford said that during his tenure as CEO, he’d learned that Huggins’ business partner — Joe Williams — had somehow won a non-competitive, $200,000 Metra contract connected to Englewood’s Flyover bridge project.

He said Williams’ company, Target Group, was paid to certify African-American contractors to work on the multimillion-dollar bridge project, but that it ultimately failed in its efforts. He said he later forwarded to state investigators his concerns about how the contract was awarded.

When it was Huggins’ turn to speak, he pointed out that while he has business dealings with Williams, he’s not involved with Target Group, and that it was Pagano who reached out to Target.

“It was a decision that Larry Huggins had nothing to do with,” Huggins said.

Williams has said he had “voluminous documentation” of his company’s work. He said it didn’t fail, but Metra’s two-year delay in bidding the contract made its work irrelevant.

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