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Metra & its hush money

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HOW CLIFFORD SAYS HE FELT THE SQUEEZE FROM POLITICIANS

» Madigan lobbies Metra to give a political foot soldier a raise.

» Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran and board member Larry Huggins make it clear Clifford had better do as Madigan says or Metra could lose funding.

» Madigan lobbies Metra to hire another unnamed person.

» State Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) asks Clifford to fill a top job with somebody recommended by the Legislature’s Latino caucus.

» O’Halloran and Huggins urge Clifford to do as Arroyo asks.

» O’Halloran demands that Clifford fire one employee and demote another.

» Huggins pressures Clifford to get the main contractor on a big Englewood construction job to hire more minority sub-contractors. Clifford refuses, saying federal regulations prohibit such pressure once a contractor meets the required minimum for minority sub-contractors.

» Huggins tells Clifford to write a check for $50,000 to the National Black Chambers of Commerce, supposedly to oversee the construction project. Clifford replies that he has “no confidence” in what Metra would be paying for and refuses to cut the check.

HOW THE POLS RESPONDED

» Madigan acknowledges he sought a raise for the Metra employee but denies he asked Clifford to hire anybody. » O’Halloran and Huggins deny that they pressured Clifford to do as Madigan and Arroyo wanted. » Huggins acknowledges that he worked to get more African-American contractors on the construction job but says he did so legally. » Arroyo denies Clifford’s allegation but says it would not have been wrong.

Updated: August 19, 2013 3:37PM



‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent” is the unofficial motto of Chicago Machine politics.

Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, who came to Chicago from the West Coast to restore the agency’s image after a scandal, was the quintessential somebody nobody sent — an outsider who doesn’t know the unwritten rules of Chicago and Illinois politics.

At a Wednesday meeting of the Regional Transportation Authority board, Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran tried to make the case that the commuter rail agency was stumbling under Clifford. But more and more, this is looking like a CEO who was forced out because Metra’s board feared politicians would cut the agency’s funding in retaliation for Clifford blocking their patronage deals. And a severance agreement for Clifford that could cost more than $700,000 is looking more and more like hush money.

Among allegations from Clifford, who also testified Wednesday, are:

◆ Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan sought a pay raise for one of his political supporters who at the time worked for Metra. Madigan said he merely made a recommendation and denied doing anything improper, but somehow that same worker showed up later in a higher-paying job on a state payroll. And the RTA’s chief of staff, who has recused himself in this matter, just happens to be Madigan’s son-in-law. How did that happen? Clifford said he saw Madigan’s effort to interfere in personnel decisions as a sign of “a moral and ethical flaw.”

◆ State Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) asked Clifford to hire a top deputy recommended by the Illinois House Latino caucus. Arroyo denies doing so, but people who note his daughter works at Metra may be skeptical.

◆ After U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) complained about the level of African-American participation in a Metra project called the Englewood Flyover, Clifford was told Rush’s office wanted Metra to send a $50,000 check to the National Black Chambers of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Why should taxpayers and Metra ticket buyers send their money there?

◆ The owner of a company that received a no-bid Metra $200,000 contract for advance community outreach for the Englewood Flyover had ties to Metra board member Larry Huggins. Clifford said the company didn’t complete the work and then sought an additional $70,000. Huggins denied doing anything improper.

The irony here is that O’Halloran and Huggins probably were right to worry that Metra was at risk of cuts in funding if it violated what Chicago historian Richard Lindberg calls the “secret, oath-bound brotherhood and sisterhood” of Chicago politics. That’s how the system works.

Insider dealing is so ingrained that all you had to do was turn the page in Wednesday’s Sun-Times to see a story on Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios likely putting taxpayers on the hook for $529,000 expected to be paid to 11 employees who were unlawfully fired after he took office, even as he hired or gave raises to his relatives. Or the story about Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson being left to twist in the wind by Mayor Rahm Emanuel even though Ferguson has done his job as well as any independent-minded person could hope.

The lesson is clear: You can’t have someone who’s adept at insider dealing and also prepared to clean things up. And people who are trying to play it straight won’t always feel secure in their jobs.

The phrase, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent” was a ward heeler’s remark to a young, idealistic Abner Mikva that later was popularized as the title of a book by Milton Rakove. It’s a philosophy that makes sense for the insiders but not the rest of us.

We need more people nobody sent.



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