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Scandal shows Metra needs to clean house

People wait outside Circuit Court Cook County Tuesday morning. Several Chicago arebranch courts are operating 50 percent staffing levels. The

People wait outside of the Circuit Court of Cook County on Tuesday morning. Several Chicago area branch courts are operating at 50 percent staffing levels. The shortage of staff means court opens late. July 16, 2013 | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 24, 2013 6:22AM

If Metra were to send out one of its “service alerts” about its own governance, it might read something like this: “After months of fumbling, the Board of Directors still isn’t sure what direction it’s going in. Metra regrets the confusion and will provide updated information as it becomes available.”

The most recent twist was former U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins’ decision to back out of an agreement to investigate Metra’s patronage scandal.

Collins, who led the prosecution of former Gov. George Ryan, was supposed to be the no-holds-barred investigator with the unassailable good-government reputation who could assure the public when he was finished that nothing had been quietly buried in the background.

Instead, his surprise announcement just added to the air of intrigue that has been swirling around Metra’s board. Collins told Metra’s board of directors that he dropped out because of potential conflicts of interest at his law firm, where he is a partner, even though an earlier review by the firm had cleared him to tackle the job. A Metra meeting early Monday to vote on hiring Collins was canceled.

Metra said it would search for someone to replace Collins, but that will just add to a list of scandals and investigations that has more stops and starts than a Metra train schedule. If this is the best the Metra board can do, it’s time for the entire board to be replaced.

The patronage hiring scandal, in which allegations reach all the way to House Speaker Mike Madigan, already is being probed by the state’s executive inspector general. A separate $52,400 investigation into former CEO Alex Clifford’s original patronage allegations — by former central Illinois U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton of Hinshaw & Culbertson — has been completed, but Metra hasn’t released it.

After former Metra CEO Phil Pagano committed suicide in 2010 amid a criminal investigation of his finances, other reviews were conducted by the accounting firm Blackman Kallick and the law enforcement consulting company Hillard Heintze. And a decade ago, a probe also involving Collins led to Metra Board Member Donald Udstuen pleading guilty to taking tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from contractors over 15 years.

The Metra board apparently tried to dodge the latest round of bad headlines by offering Clifford, who resigned June 21, a golden parachute of up to $718,000 as part of a severance agreement in which Clifford agreed not to talk publicly about his allegations. After Metra was pressured into allowing Clifford to go public, he testified during a July 11 hearing he was forced out for resisting insider deals on jobs and contracts.

In a press release, Metra board Chairman Brad O’Halloran said he remains “committed to interviewing other lawyers with outstanding reputations and investigative skills” to replace Collins.

If Metra does settle on someone else, it must be someone who, like Collins, has an unimpeachable record. The commuter rail agency needs to stop being known as a place with trouble at the top.

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