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Metra Board chief quits amid ‘media and political frenzy’

Updated: September 3, 2013 7:48AM

Beleaguered Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran quit Thursday, charging that a patronage and severance controversy at the rail agency has become “a media and political frenzy.”

O’Halloran sent his resignation letter to Cook County Commissioners Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Doody Gorman and Jeff Tobolski, the elected officials who originally appointed him to the Board of Directors.

O’Halloran denied any wrongdoing in his handling of the severance deal the board gave to outgoing Metra CEO Alex Clifford.

“It is with mixed feelings that I step down,” O’Halloran wrote. “Unfortunately, a media and political frenzy has been stirred up, primarily related to the Alex Clifford separation agreement. I have come to the sad conclusion that, so long as I am Chairman and a member of the board, the truly critical issues facing Metra will be left aside while the focus remains on the next big headline or attention-grabbing quotation.

“It is unacceptable to me and I have to do what is in my power to stop this now, which is why I have made this decision. I am disappointed that the facts as you and I know them have been eclipsed. I know I have made every decision with the best interests of Metra in mind.”

A growing chorus of state legislators has called on O’Halloran and the entire board to resign after the June 21 decision to pay out $718,000 in severance to Clifford. O’Halloran is the third member on the board of 11 to step down.

The latest fodder emerged this week when records revealed that O’Halloran quietly wrote a check on July 12 to return approximately $22,000 to southwest suburban Orland Park, where he serves as trustee, because state law bars Metra board members from accepting money from elected office.

A village spokesman said O’Halloran told Orland Park last December to stop the payments from July 2011 through November 2012 into his deferred compensation retirement accounts. O’Halloran resigned that post as well Thursday, according to a village spokesman, a job he’s held since 1993.

O’Halloran, who could not be reached Thursday at his Orland Park home, apparently had discussed resigning from Metra for at least the last week, Gorman said,

“I knew it was on his mind for a while,” she said. “He wanted to tie up some loose ends that were in the best interest of his family and Metra.”

Gorman called O’Halloran’s intentions “good” but said that he “recognized that his position on the Metra board had become untenable in the wake of this intense public scrutiny.”

In his two-page letter, O’Halloran repeated his claims that he referred all Clifford’s allegations — which O’Halloran dubbed “non-specific”— about political pressure to the inspector general and tried to get “the pre-eminent anti-corruption watchdog” attorney Patrick Collins involved.

“My reaction was not to ‘hush’ anything up, but rather to direct the matter immediately to the inspector general, so that he could get to the bottom of it,” he wrote.

In answering Clifford’s charges, O’Halloran maintained that Clifford “misrepresented or outright invented supposed conversations he claims to have had with me.” And writing in a defiant tone, he continued to stand by what he called a “business decision” to avoid costly litigation with Clifford, calling it the “lesser of two bad choices in order for the agency to move forward.”

“While I have been taking the heat, it seems the powerful politicians Mr. Clifford accused escaped the same level of criticism,” he wrote at the end of his letter.

Clifford has said he believes he was ousted because he resisted requests from House Speaker Mike Madigan to give a raise to one Metra employee and promote another. Clifford said O’Halloran was concerned that refusing the powerful Southwest Side Democrat would cause Metra to lose funding.

Metra Board member Jack Schaffer has denounced the severance package as “hush money.”

On Wednesday, Schaffer stood with GOP gubernatorial hopeful Bill Brady as Brady called for the entire board to be dumped. Brady had harsh words for O’Halloran, saying his behavior “lies in question” and that he should answer questions and be held accountable.

“To the average citizens of Illinois, ... a buyout contract, whether it’s for hush or other reasons is wrong and the people of Illinois deserve to know that their tax dollars are going into a system that is run by people who are behaving ethically and putting the taxpayers in front of anyone’s personal political gain,” Brady said.

Two board members have already stepped down — Paul Darley, who represented DuPage County, and Mike McCoy, who represented Kane County.

New appointments will have to be made; meanwhile board vice chair Jack Partelow of Naperville, the ranking member and a possible O’Halloran successor, likely will run the next board meeting on Aug. 16, according to Metra spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reile.

The agency released a statement thanking O’Halloran for his service:

“Metra’s staff will continue to work with our Board members and focus on our agency’s mission to provide the riders and taxpayers of Northeast Illinois with high-quality, safe, affordable and reliable commuter rail service,” Metra Deputy Executive Directors Alex Wiggins and Don Orseno said in a joint statement. “Our customers should expect no change.”

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman

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