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Former federal prosecutor backs out of Metra inquiry

Former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins | Sun-Times

Former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins | Sun-Times

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Updated: August 24, 2013 6:10AM

The highly-regarded former assistant U.S. attorney who was set to investigate Metra’s patronage scandal backed out at the last minute Monday, blaming a potential conflict at his law firm.

In a surprise move that damages Metra’s attempts to seize control of a growing political firestorm, Patrick Collins told Metra’s board that “potential conflict issues” at his Perkins Coie law firm make him “unable to be considered further for the proposed representation,” Metra announced.

Collins’ hard-charging reputation — which helped him put away former Gov. George Ryan — was cited by Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran last week as making Collins the ideal man to get to the bottom of ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford’s corruption allegations.

His withdrawal leaves O’Halloran scrambling to find a lawyer of similar stature to lead an internal probe.

The rail service has been mired in crisis ever since Clifford was fired with a $718,000 golden parachute after he wrote a memo accusing House Speaker Michael Madigan of pressuring him to give raises to Madigan cronies.

Metra in April hired former central Illinois U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton to investigate Clifford’s claims. Though that investigation is “ongoing” and had cost $52,400 as of June 17, according to Metra spokesman Mike Gillis, O’Halloran said last week that Heaton found “nothing illegal took place.”

Gillis said Monday that O’Halloran was describing only what Heaton has discovered “so far,” but struggled to explain how Collins’ proposed $150,000 investigation would have improved upon Heaton’s work. He said Collins would “follow on” from Heaton’s probe, and that O’Halloran had given a commitment that Collins’ report would be made public, while no such commitment had been made in Heaton’s case.

Collins’ appointment was due to be considered by the Metra board Monday.

In his letter to the board, Collins said he was initially cleared by his colleagues to work for Metra, but that “additional information” about a potential conflict at Perkins Coie was brought to his attention following media coverage of his proposed appointment.

The letter did not specify what the conflict was, and Collins declined to comment Monday.

O’Halloran said that he was disappointed” but “committed to interviewing other lawyers with outstanding reputations and investigative skills, and to once again ask the board for its approval.”

House Rep. Jack D. Franks (D - Woodstock) — who has called for the entire Metra board to be fired — backed that decision, saying he doesn’t “have a lot of faith” in the accounts so far given of Clifford’s ouster. “We need a new and complete, independent report — the public’s entitled to know what’s going on,” he said.

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