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Metra clout cards include who’s who of pols as job references

Illinois Gov. George Ryan leafs through copy state panel's report capital punishment thwas released Chicago  Monday April 15 2002

Illinois Gov. George Ryan leafs through a copy of a state panel's report on capital punishment that was released in Chicago Monday, April 15, 2002, as former Sen. Paul Simon, a co-chair of the 14-member panel, makes a statement. The panel was formed by Ryan after he imposed a moratorium on executions two years ago. The report contains 85 recommendations, but members stopped short of calling for abolishing capital punishment. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green) ORG XMIT: CX104

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Updated: April 16, 2014 7:41AM

A former governor who went to prison. The chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. A U.S. senator who ran for president.

A who’s who of Illinois politicians — from folks since shrouded in shame to names chiseled on the side of government buildings — were listed as Metra job references on nearly 800 index cards kept over an eight-year period at Metra headquarters.

That’s what photocopies of the cards obtained Tuesday by the Chicago Sun-Times under a Freedom of Information Act request showed.

The good news is that the cards date from 1983 to 1991, and new Metra leaders who rose to the top after last year’s Metra uproar insist that hiring is not now based on who you know.

But some names listed in the cards might be surprising.

U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a liberal and often highly regarded bow-tied Democrat who died in 2003, is listed as a reference to a job candidate who went nowhere at Metra. Simon made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.

State Sen. Dawn Clark Netsch, a future state comptroller also generally considered a straight arrow, recommended one job candidate to Metra along with then-state senator and now Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and then-Cook County Board President George Dunne. The candidate was interviewed, but no specific action was listed.

Others recommending candidates have since headed to prison: former Gov. George Ryan, who was lieutenant governor at the time of his recommendation to Metra; former longtime Chicago alderman and power broker Ed Vrdolyak; former Cook County Under Sheriff James Dvorak; former 1st Ward Ald. Fred Roti; and former Metra board member Don Udstuen.

There are also referrals from “Jane Byrne” and “Jim Edgar,’’ although there was no indication in the card files whether the referrals were from the former Chicago mayor and Illinois’ former governor.

Harry Comerford, while serving as chief judge of the Circuit Court, weighed in with a letter of support for someone deemed not qualified for the recommended position, but “a good candidate for coach cleaner or train man.’’ Whether the candidate was hired was not mentioned.

New Metra Chairman Martin Oberman, who joined the Metra board last year in the upheaval that followed the controversial buyout of former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, said the index cards may be “interesting political entertainment” from decades ago.

But Oberman emphasized Tuesday that the handwritten records of clout referrals are “divorced from the appropriate action we need to be taking now, beyond putting an end to the patronage system, which we have done.’’

Among the names popping up most often for referrals are Udstuen, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, former state Rep. Al Ronan, and former Metra chairman Jeff Ladd.

The index cards indicated that Udstuen, a Metra board member, often acted as an intermediary. In one case, he apparently passed on a referral from then-U.S. Rep. George Sangmeister for someone listed as a “good candidate” — except that he “failed typing test” as well as the “retest.”

The candidate “will keep trying” to pass and “will call us when ready,’’ according to the index card.

Another candidate made it into the index cards of clout merely because he ran into ex-Metra chief James Cole in a elevator after completing a Metra application and “impressed Cole.” He eventually was hired as a coach cleaner.

Cole also recommended another candidate — listed next to Cole’s name with the note “Lou Mitchell waitress.’’ The result: “o.k. results — no openings.’’

In one case, two “back-door letters” were sent to Metra chair Ladd to get one person hired with three referrals on file, including one from Metra Board member Warren Nugent.

The cards are peppered with the names of past and then-present congressmen: Republicans John Porter and Henry Hyde and Democrats Gus Savage and Marty Russo.

Hyde showed up as putting in a good word for two of his sons: the late Henry Hyde Jr. and Anthony Hyde.

Hyde Jr. interviewed for a possible job in finance in 1988, but his card noted there were “no acceptable openings” and that he later accepted an offer elsewhere.

His younger brother, Anthony, also got an interview at an unknown date, but “accepted employment elsewhere.’’

DuPage County Chairman Jack Knuepfer, once called “the Mayor Daley of the suburbs,” also shows up as intervening on behalf of job seekers. DuPage County’s administration building was named after him.

State Sen. Bob Kustra, who went on to become lieutenant governor, inquired about the salary of a claims specialist in May 1988. The following month he was promoted to senior insurance specialist.

State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, while a state senator, sent a letter to then-top Metra official Phil Pagano that apparently led to an interview of one candidate, who was listed as “ok . . . but skills not especially well matched to Metra’s current staffing needs.’’ No other disposition was listed.

The existence of the index cards was first revealed on March 31, in the final report of Gov. Pat Quinn’s transit task force. In an ethics section of that report that was overseen by task force member and former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the task force noted that Madigan’s name turned up one way or another on 26 referrals and “in some cases he did not recommend people to be hired — he in effect decided they were hired.’’

In an anti-patronage move on Friday, Metra’s board of directors unanimously passed an ordinance that requires employment-related communications to be entered into a log that is available to the public. Publicizing such communications is “intended to serve as a deterrent to any attempt to improperly influence employment matters,’’ Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

In addition, Metra interviewers were recently required to certify that political considerations played no role in their hiring decisions.

In an April 3 address to the City Club, new Metra CEO Don Orseno — part of the post-Clifford leadership team — emphasized that “patronage will no longer be tolerated” and “Metra is committed to doing the right thing. . . . We’re moving ahead. The train has left the station.’’

Yet in a bit of trivia, the names of Orseno’s father and brother pop up on one card from 1988. Listed on the top line is brother Richard Orseno Jr. Below him, on the line usually used for referrals, is the father’s name, Rich Orseno. No other explanation is given other than that Richard Jr. was hired as a “trainman 3/14/88.’’ Richard Jr. still works today at Metra as a “trainman/conductor,’’ according to Metra files.

Gillis said Orseno’s father worked at one point for the Rock Island Railroad and then for Metra, but he did not know the father’s position at the time the 1988 card was written. However, the Rock Island ceased operations in 1980, according to a Metra biography of Don Orseno.

“This is an example of how not all of these cards include referrals from public officials,’’ Gillis said.

Oberman said the Orseno card was written “26 years ago” and “we are not going to go back and start reopening ancient history for everyone who works for Metra.”

And, Oberman said, the card says nothing about Don Orseno, a 40-year “railroad man” who, like his father, started his career with the Rock Island and joined Metra in 1980.

Said Oberman: “All I’ve ever heard about Don Orseno is that he’s an excellent person, he’s totally nonpolitical, and he’s a professional who worked his way up based on merit.’’

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