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More scrutiny on Metra severance

Former MetrCEO Alex Clifford pictured here showing off  new electrical outlets Metrrail cars 2013. | Sun-Times files

Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, pictured here showing off new electrical outlets in the Metra rail cars in 2013. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: August 2, 2013 7:07AM



Cook County commissioners could become the third group to probe a controversial severance deal that stands to reap former Metra CEO Alex Clifford up to $750,000 over 26 months.

However, if Clifford or Metra board members want lawyers to represent them during any hearings on Clifford’s golden parachute, they shouldn’t send taxpayers the legal tab, one key lawmaker warned.

And, State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) told the Chicago Sun-Times, if Metra board members “have to lawyer-up and can’t answer for themselves, they ought to resign right now because the taxpayers deserve unfiltered answers from the people who made the decisions.’’

In another development Friday involving Clifford’s June 21 resignation and severance package, Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri revealed he has asked fellow commissioners to hold a hearing on “the facts and circumstances” surrounding Clifford’s departure from Metra, which receives county dollars.

“The Metra Board owes the Cook County taxpayers an explanation as to why this severance package is warranted,’’ Silvestri said in a news release.

The hearing would be held by the Suburban Caucus Committee of the Cook County Board. The committee would specifically call as witnesses the five Metra Board members, who are appointed by the Cook County Board president and suburban commissioners.

That would include Metra Board Chair Brad O’Halloran, who announced this month that Clifford had “agreed to resign” if board members approved his separation agreement.

In explaining the deal, O’Halloran said that there were “differences of opinion” on “how Metra moves forward,” on “who we need leading this organization,” and on Clifford’s “legal rights under his contract.”

To “avoid wasting time and money on attorneys,’’ Metra was offering Clifford a “generous” separation agreement, O’Halloran said.

RTA chair John Gates Jr. last week announced he, too, had ordered a review of the Clifford deal, to determine if it was “fiscally prudent.’’ And State Reps. Franks and Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) said they want committees they chair to hold a joint hearing on the matter, with Clifford and Metra Board members as witnesses.

Franks has questioned why the Metra board agreed to pay Clifford up to $750,000 for 26 months when Clifford’s original contract says he is not entitled to severance if he resigns. If fired without cause, Clifford would only be entitled to six months pay, Franks noted. Clifford resigned with less than eight months to go on his contract.

Clifford told the Sun-Times by email that he would “take counsel from my attorney,” whom he identified as “Michael Shakman and his firm,’’ if called as a witness. Asked who would be billed for that counsel, Clifford responded “I don’t think it’s a good idea to discuss `what if’ situations.’’

“If he chooses, he can bring a lawyer, but we shouldn’t pay a penny for it. If board members want to bring individual attorneys, they can pay for them,’’ Franks said.

“I want them to speak for themselves. If they need mouthpieces, we have a bigger problem than I thought.’’

Clifford’s deal pays him: $442,237 for the eight months left on his contract, the six months after that, and benefits; up to $307,390 for an extra 12 months to cover the difference in salary between any new job and what he would have received at Metra; $78,000 in reimbursable moving fees; and up to $75,000 in “reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in representing Clifford in relation to Metra.’’

Franks called the last 12 months of the deal a “disincentive for [Clifford] to find work.” However, Clifford, in an email to the Sun-Times, said he was “personally insulted by any suggestion” he would “deliberately try to stay unemployed to collect the final 12 months of pay.’’

Clifford said he started mowing lawns when he was 11 years old and “I have worked every day since then.’’



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