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Ex-Metra CEO memo has explosive new revelations regarding Mike Madigan

House Speaker Michael Madigan  speaks reporters Chicago June. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green File)

House Speaker Michael Madigan speaks to reporters in Chicago in June. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

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Updated: August 14, 2013 6:16AM

House Speaker Michael Madigan not only lobbied Metra to give a pay hike to a Metra worker whose family had worked on Madigan’s political campaigns but also “reportedly” tried to get someone else hired at the suburban rail agency, a newly released memo from ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford indicates.

According, to the memo, Clifford said he was informed that he was being forced out of his job “for not complying with Speaker Madigan’s requests for politically motivated employment actions.”

Clifford informed the board in the memo that Metra board Chairman Brad O’Halloran and board member Larry Huggins were concerned that failure to comply with Madigan’s requests would “result in Metra losing future funding.”

The explosive memo goes far beyond a description of it provided by Metra board outside counsel Joe Gagliardo on Thursday to the House Mass Transit Committee, even though the Committee’s chair, state Rep. Deb Mell, asked Gagliardo at least twice if he had summarized all the contents of the memo.

State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) noted that witnesses before the House Mass Transit committee were not sworn in, so there is “no legal recourse” for their failure to disclose to the Committee all the allegations in the Clifford memo.

Only two of 11 Metra Board members showed up Thursday to explain why Metra Board members approved a 26-month, maximum $718,000 separation agreement with Clifford when he had eight months left on his contract. The lone Metra board dissenter, Jack Schaffer, Thursday told the House Committee the payout was largely “hush money.’’

Metra has said that before his exit, Clifford initially threatened a “whistleblower lawsuit” and was asking for more than the $718,000 he got.

Another new revelation in the memo is the accusation that O’Halloran wanted two Metra employees fired. Clifford wrote that the intervention was improper because hiring and firing was his responsibility.

O’Halloran and Huggins issued statements denying Clifford’s charges.

“As I testified yesterday, I deny Mr. Clifford’s allegations, but, out of an abundance of caution, immediately forwarded all of his claims to the [state] Inspector General,” O’Halloran said. “I have never intervened with Metra’s staff regarding any jobs or contracts. The Board attempted a fair and unbiased review process for Mr. Clifford that was upended by his threatened legal strategy, which resulted in the settlement.”

“I categorically deny Clifford’s allegations,” Huggins said.

In the memo, Clifford also wrote that when he spoke to O’Halloran about renewing his employment contract, “he told me that he needed to arrange a meeting with Speaker Madigan to assess ‘what damage I have done’ to Metra and its future funding by my refusal to accede to Speaker Madigan’s requests.”

Clifford also gave more details on those requests, writing that Madigan, through a Metra lobbyist and in a direct conversation with Huggins, asked for a raise for Metra employee Patrick Ward. When Clifford did not comply, it resulted in an argument with Huggins, Clifford wrote.

Clifford then asked Ward “why I was getting pressure from Speaker Madigan with regard to his salary.”

“Mr. Ward said his family had supported Mr. Madigan for many years and worked on his political campaigns,” Clifford wrote. “He said that he had discussed his Metra employment with Mr. Madigan at a Madigan political event, where he told Mr. Madigan that he felt underpaid.”

Clifford said Madigan also requested that Metra hire another individual, but he provided no more details on that revelation.

Later, according to the memo, Clifford found out that O’Halloran and Huggins had decided to replace him when his contract expired with Alex Wiggins, Metra’s Deputy Executive Director. Clifford wrote that he had documents confirming this.

“Mr. O’Halloran and Mr. Huggins have also said that I must go for not complying with Speaker Madigan’s requests for politically motivated employment actions, which Mr. O’Halloran and Mr. Huggins may believe will result in Metra losing future funding,” Clifford said in the memo.

Asked about the new allegations, a Madigan aide stuck by a statement released by the speaker Thursday in which Madigan said he engaged in no wrongdoing while advocating a raise for Ward after a supervisor had deemed it warranted.

“I think the statement speaks for itself. It addresses the question of Ward,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Brown offered this response when asked to shed more light about the conversation Madigan had with Ward about his pay at Metra.

“I think [Ward] made the point he’d been there a number of years. He was doing increased responsibilities, and his salary wasn’t increased,” Brown said.

Pressed on why the powerful House speaker would go to bat for Ward, Brown answered, “Somebody asked for help. That’s what public officials do, day in and day out. People ask for help.”

Brown went on to deny Friday’s bombshell allegation by Clifford that his refusal to give Ward a raise or hire another job applicant being pushed by Madigan resulted in his dismissal from Metra.

“I have no idea what happened to Clifford. It sounded like he had a world of problems, including not knowing anything about railroads,” Brown said.

Brown denied that Madigan interceded on another Metra job applicant’s behalf, as Clifford alleged.

“There’s no record of any other request,” Brown said.

Brown said Madigan has not been interviewed or subpoenaed by Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza’s office in connection with Clifford’s allegations.

Madigan wasn’t the only legislator trying to influence personnel decisions, Clifford wrote.

During a meeting with the Latino caucus, Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) asked Clifford if he would hire someone recommended by the caucus for an open executive position. Huggins later weighed in, supporting Arroyo’s request, according to Clifford’s memo.

Clifford said he told Arroyo that Metra would follow its normal hiring procedures.

A lawyer representing Arroyo denied Clifford’s allegation that Arroyo tried to strong-arm Metra into hiring his candidate for a deputy directorship.

“Luis Arroyo categorically denies the allegation. Secondly, even if that particular part of it is true, which it’s not, there’s nothing improper about making a recommendation of someone who’s qualified if there’s a low amount, which there is, of Hispanic participation in contracting and jobs at Metra,” Arroyo attorney Frank Avila told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The disclosure alleging Arroyo tried to clout in his choice for a deputy director slot at Metra isn’t the first time the Northwest Side lawmaker has found himself tied to the transit agency’s inner workings.

In November 2010, the Chicago Sun-Times published a report by the Better Government Association outlining how Arroyo — then the vice chairman of the House Mass Transit Committee — pressed Metra to hire a more diversified workforce.

After doing so, the legislator’s daughter, Denise Arroyo, landed a $66,000-a-year administrative job at Metra. Later, his son’s girlfriend, Liza Dominguez, got a $39,000-a-year receptionist job for the agency.

And last October, the Sun-Times and BGA reported on how the legislator made what one GOP critic described as a “threat” to cut funding for Metra if it didn’t go along with his plan to rename its Healy station at Fullerton and Pulaski for Roberto Clemente, the late Puerto Rican baseball star who died in a 1972 plane crash.

Another point of contention in Clifford’s memo was that Huggins was unhappy with Clifford’s handling of the “Englewood Flyover” bridge project, which Huggins believed did not direct enough money to African-American contractors.

Clifford claimed Huggins refused to put the contract on the board’s agenda for three months, during which Huggins sucessfully pressured the contractor to add a significant number of African-American subcontractors.

Huggins also arranged for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) to find a contractor that Metra would pay $50,000 for oversight services related to the Flyover. The oversight contract was ultimately abandoned, Clifford wrote.

In his statement Friday addressing Clifford’s memo, Huggins said the Flyover “project is taking place in an African-American community, and important leaders like Congressman Bobby Rush and Danny Davis were justifiably upset over the lack of community representation in Clifford’s original construction plans. Everything I did to help resolve that controversy with members of Congress was done in concert with federal and state transportation officials and legal counsel.”

Lawmakers at the hearing Thursday were upset with Metra’s overall handling of the Clifford severance situation, but Metra officials questioned at the hearing said that only the board itself and the governor can dismiss board members.

However Gov. Pat Quinn’s office said he does not have authority to replace the Metra board without cause. He could only do so based on an Office of the Executive Inspector General report and after a public hearing, Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said.

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