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Metra retirement plans derailed

MetrActing Chairman Larry Huggins left CEO Alex Clifford talk before holding press conference announce unveiling new Metrticket machines UniStati201 S.

Metra Acting Chairman Larry Huggins, left, and CEO Alex Clifford talk before holding a press conference to announce the unveiling of new Metra ticket machines at Union Station, 201 S. Canal, Friday, March 9, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 12, 2013 6:49AM

Three Metra Board members who signed a controversial $718,000 deal to dump Metra’s CEO would have never been around to do so if they had followed an agreement by four lawmakers to retire two years ago.

But the agreement fell apart after Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to let the city’s appointee — Metra Board member Larry Huggins — retire and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle spoke up on Huggins’ behalf, letters obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times indicate.

Recently, calls have been mounting for the Metra board to resign for signing a 26-month, $718,000 separation agreement with former CEO Alex Clifford.

However, only a few years ago, some lawmakers called for the ouster of the entire Metra Board, charging they were asleep at the wheel while then-Metra executive director Phil Pagano allegedly pocketed some $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payments. Pagano, of McHenry County, stepped in front of a Metra train and killed himself in May 2010.

About a year later, in June of 2011, said State Sen. Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills), he agreed to drop his bill to shake up the Metra Board if five of the longest-serving members from the Pagano era agreed to retire by June 2012.

Link said he and three other Democratic senators forged that deal during a meeting with the appointing authorities of Metra Board members. That included five suburban county board chairmen, Preckwinkle and a representative of Emanuel’s office, Link said.

“They knew I had leverage. They knew I could pass the bill out of the Senate,’’ Link said. “That’s when they met with us and came up with this agreement. . . . I said I could live with this as long as Metra got rid of these people.’’

A June 22, 2011, letter signed by the four senators and copied to Emanuel, Preckwinkle and the five suburban board chairmen showed that under the agreement, Huggins, then Metra vice-chair; McHenry County appointee Jack Schaffer; Cook County suburban appointee Arlene Mulder and two other since-departed Metra Board members were supposed to retire by June 30, 2012.

However, within three weeks, Preckwinkle wrote a letter to the same four lawmakers, saying Emanuel never agreed to let Huggins retire. In addition, Preckwinkle wrote that Huggins, with whom she had worked when she was an alderman, “has been a great help to me and I cannot and will not advocate to replace him in his current role on the Metra Board.’’

Huggins also has been a long-time financial supporter of Preckwinkle, donating about $30,000 to her since 1999, and regularly holds annual Preckwinkle fund-raisers, the BGA has reported. However, Preckwinkle spokeswoman Kristen Mack said Huggins’ campaign contributions “have no bearing” on Preckwinkle’s decisions. She noted that Huggins was the mayor’s appointee to the Metra Board, not Preckwinkle’s.

Clifford recently accused Huggins, a construction contractor, of trying to orchestrate his ouster for failing to bend to Huggins’ demands about black contractors. Huggins called the allegations the work of a “spin” doctor.

Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said neither Emanuel’s representative at the June 2011 meeting, nor “anyone at the mayor’s office ever agreed to remove Larry Huggins.’’

After dodging controversy about Huggins for weeks, Emanuel on Aug. 3 finally forced his resignation. McHenry County Metra appointee Schaffer, who was supposed to retire under the June 2011 deal, said as soon as Huggins was allowed to remain on the board, “the deal fell apart.’’

Suburban Pagano holdovers never gave up their seats. Schaffer, Metra board treasurer during the Pagano era, said he stayed on, but expects to retire when his term expires next June. Schaffer was the only Metra board member to vote against dumping Clifford, and called his buyout largely “hush money.’’

The June 2011 letter calling for Schaffer’s resignation and others “had no binding authority,’’ Schaffer said. “It wasn’t even a [legislative resolution]. It was the opinion of four lawmakers.’’

However, Link said he’s “upset” that the agreement was never followed. Link said it’s hard to “Monday morning quarterback” but the Clifford mess may have never materialized with a different set of players at Metra’s helm.

“I believe, and still firmly believe, that something drastic had to be done after the Pagano situation,’’ said Link, who also favors the resignation of the current board. “If something had been done [per the June 2011 agreement], there’s a good possibility we never would be having this discussion today.’’

Another lawmaker who wants the Metra Board to resign enmasse agreed.

“It was the same folks who hired Clifford, the same folks who fired Clifford and the same folks who let Pagano run wild,’’ said State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo).

Franks said Huggins failure to retire in 2012 and later reappointment doesn’t mean other Pagano holdovers should have stayed on too.

“This is so juvenile,” said Franks, of McHenry County, where the Republican county chairman originally appointed Schaffer.

“Just because one guy doesn’t do the honorable thing and leave doesn’t mean you get to stay.’’

Email: Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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