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STEINBERG: Madigan Metra call? Not political!

Updated: August 13, 2013 6:17AM

Metra outside counsel Joseph Gagliardo probably did not mean to summarize exactly the sort of cronyism that has plagued the railroad for years.

But he did, and in a dozen simple words.

“Elected officials don’t lose their First Amendment rights to talk to people,” he told State Rep. Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) and her House Mass Transit Committee at a meeting Thursday intended to call the Metra board and its very expensive former CEO, Alex Clifford, on the carpet.

The elected official Gagliardo was referring to is Michael Madigan, Illinois’ all-powerful Speaker of the House, whose Chicago office was only steps away. And the talk in question was Madigan’s 2012 request that a friend of his working for Metra and — Gagliardo stressed — does a super job, perhaps was underpaid.

“Speaker Madigan inquired about a raise for an employee,” said Gagliardo. “It’s not inappropriate for an elected official to inquire about a wage increase for somebody. It’s not based on politics . . . Mr. Clifford viewed the request as political.”

Well, yeah, unless Mike Madigan is part of the ordinary salary review process at Metra, then it would seem that way. Gagliardo tried to simultaneously imply this was nothing unusual and also something Clifford should have reported to the board immediately.

The salary request was one of three incidents that Clifford complained of last March when the board decided to evaluate him — an evaluation whose conclusion must have been forgone, because the next day, Gagliardo said, a pal of Clifford’s on the board told Clifford that no one would mind if he started shopping his resume right away.

For those just joining us, Clifford was hired in 2010 to clean up Metra, but instead is cleaning up for himself. Eight months before his three-year contract expired, Metra offered him $718,000 to go away quietly.

The question is, “Why?”: Because he has the dirt on Metra? Or in order, as Metra argues, to spare the cost of a frivolous lawsuit.

The transit committee members, like the blind men and the elephant, tried to feel their way to an outline of the true situation, though without help from the main players.

In a letter to Mell, Clifford said he’d be “happy” to testify, but his agreement kept him from talking. Mell was visibly unhappy, not only about that, but about the mostly missing board and read aloud the names of eight of the nine absent members.

To call the Metra situation Clifford inherited “a mess” would be bad taste — Clifford’s predecessor as CEO, Phil Pagano, not only killed himself in 2010 to escape charges he finagled $475,000 in bonuses he didn’t deserve then forged memos trying to cover it up. But he did so in the most jarring fashion possible — by stepping in front of an oncoming Metra train. To anyone who knows the trauma such deaths inflict on Metra personnel and passengers, it was an abominable farewell to a railroad he led for 20 years.

Gagliardo did his best to explain that Clifford was not paid off. “We have not muzzled him,” he said. “This was not a golden parachute. It was a separation agreement.”

He emphasized that Clifford’s contract demands nearly $200,000 anyway, no matter what had happened, so really only an extra $500,000 is being spent and maybe — if Clifford hurries to get a new job — not even that.

Metra chairman Brad O’Halloran sat mostly mute next to his counsel, but when he did speak, the outline of the truth of the situation is shimmered a little in the darkness. O’Halloran said he joined Metra in December, and by March was moving to oust Clifford, whose undeniable actions — pushing back against Madigan, brushing off a request to hire employees connected to powerful pols, keeping Englewood activists from dictating construction — ring true to what a diligent reformer would have tried to do.

State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) did his best to dig a few facts out of the murk.

His most pointed question was if there are rules in place to fire members of the Metra board, and under what circumstances those firings could take place.

O’Halloran deferred to Gagliardo, who deferred to Metra counsel Andrew Green, who said, yes, there are, that eight of the 11 board members can vote to remove one of themselves for “incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance.” Just as I was thinking, “Don’t hold your breath for that one,” he added: The governor can also fire board members.

Now there’s a thought. Poor Pat Quinn can’t make a dropped cup hit the floor. He has been searching for something that he’s capable of achieving and, since Lawyer Green did not mention the need for any kind of legislative approval whatsoever, Quinn could sweep in, sweep out the Metra board, spare us all this tap-dancing, while actually doing something for a change, gaining rare public support and, heck, maybe even helping the trains run on time. It’s a thought.

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