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Brown: With Patrick Collins out of the game, Metra needs another ace

Updated: August 24, 2013 6:38AM

It’s too bad Patrick Collins won’t be sinking his teeth into the Metra scandal after all.

Whether you’re of the school of thought that there’s more to the Metra story — or less — than meets the eye, Collins is certainly on the short list of folks who could be trusted to sort it out to the public’s satisfaction and mine.

Nothing says “I have nothing to hide” quite like hiring Collins to investigate yourself.

That obviously was the idea behind Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran’s bold move to bring in the ex-federal prosecutor who put away former Gov. George Ryan.

That strategy was dealt a setback Monday when Collins unexpectedly withdrew from consideration just before the Metra board was set to vote on retaining him. Collins cited unspecified “potential conflict issues” at the Perkins Coie law firm where he has been a partner since 2007.

There are others who could serve the same purpose, starting with Collins’ old boss, Patrick Fitzgerald, but we’ll have to wait and see where O’Halloran turns next.

The selection of Collins certainly sent a different message than Metra’s first pick to conduct an investigation, Rodger Heaton, the former U.S. attorney in Springfield.

Heaton lost some credibility in these quarters when he chose to go to dinner in Springfield in 2006 with Republican power brokers William Cellini and Robert Kjellander at a time it was widely known the two were under investigation by federal prosecutors here in connection with Tony Rezko. Cellini was later convicted in the Gov. Rod Blagojevich scandal as was Rezko.

Hinshaw & Culbertson, where Heaton is now a partner, has been paid more than $52,000 so far for its investigation of the allegations by ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford that he was dumped for refusing to grant patronage requests from House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Heaton’s initial finding that there was “nothing illegal” therefore didn’t carry much weight with those of us who recall the Cellini episode.

That’s why it made sense to start over and bring in somebody like Collins, who has some history with Madigan while he was an assistant U.S. attorney. The probe involved whether legislative staffers had been improperly compensated for political work using taxpayer dollars. No charges were brought.

Collins also later clashed with the speaker’s staff while trying to help enact the recommendations of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission.

When you calculate the cost of the Metra affair, you have to add Heaton’s $52,000 on top of Clifford’s $718,000 severance.

Toss in at least another $200,000-$300,000 to compensate Joseph Gagliardo, the lawyer who was brought in to negotiate the separation agreement with Clifford, and Donald O’Connell, the former Cook County chief judge hired to mediate the dispute, and you’re looking at more than a million dollars total.

That’s before Metra brings in a white knight like Collins to conduct another investigation. Collins’ firm was to be paid $150,000, which is cheap.

It’s no wonder then that this story continues to resonate in particular with frustrated Metra riders such as Carleen Hilaszek of Palos Hills.

Hilaszek, who has been riding Metra’s Heritage Corridor line for 12 years, says she and her fellow riders keep thinking how far that money could have gone toward fixing up the rusted metal shack that serves as the Willow Springs “station.”

The shack’s leaky roof can’t keep out the rain, and in winter, the heaters invariably don’t work.

“It’s horrible,” said Hilaszek, who believes a better station could be constructed for as little as $100,000, which shows she’s perhaps naïve to the ways of government.

“If they’ve got money in the budget to give to this man, why isn’t it in the budget for the ridership?” she asked.

Of course, the other big reason this story caught fire was the involvement of Madigan, the most powerful Democrat in the state.

I’ll admit to still being a little flummoxed at how little mischief Madigan is actually being accused of having conducted at Metra, considering the furor.

Clifford said he was only aware of the two attempts to get a raise for one of the speaker’s political minions and a request to get another worker promoted to conductor. I would have thought Madigan has plenty more people tucked away at Metra, as I know he has at many other government agencies.

Patronage is hardly dead around here, just buried a little deeper. Metra should stick with its plan to hire somebody who knows how to dig for it.

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