Rep. Rush angrily denies pressuring ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford
STEFANO ESPOSITO AND FRAN SPIELMAN Staff Reporters August 6, 2013 2:24PM
Updated: September 8, 2013 6:21AM
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush angrily denied on Tuesday that he pressured former Metra CEO Alex Clifford to cut a $50,000 check to a national organization the congressman had recommended to monitor minority hiring for a massive South Side rail project.
“I have never, ever — during this whole process — attempted to steer, attempted to invite, attempted to involve anybody into receiving one red cent — not one red cent,” Rush told reporters at 65th and Wentworth, a site for ongoing work on the Englewood flyover.
Rush’s name surfaced in July when Clifford, in explosive testimony before the Regional Transit Authority board, said he was forced out at Metra because he resisted political pressure from high-ranking Illinois politicians.
The deepening scandal has already resulted in four Metra board members resigning, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel forcing out the city’s only representative, Larry Huggins.
On Tuesday, Rush blasted a recent news report that said Rush recommended Metra pay $50,000 to the National Black Chamber of Commerce, an organization the congressman recommended be brought in to oversee minority participation in the Englewood flyover project, construction of a rail bridge. Clifford testified before the RTA that he refused to send a check because, among other things, he couldn’t figure out what the chamber of commerce would actually be doing on the project.
Emanuel on Tuesday offered his first public explanation for forcing out Huggins.
“Metra needs to hit the re-start, refresh button. And given everything that was going on, the best thing to do was for Larry Huggins, who has served this city admirably over many years in different ways [to] step aside so the Metra board could hit the re-start button,” the mayor said.
“I will note that, in recent times, this will be the third try at that effort. So, I called him up on Friday. I said, `Given everything that’s going on, I think it’s time we move forward.”
The mayor was asked why he “lost confidence” in Huggins.
“That’s not what I said and that’s not what I believe,” he said.
Emanuel was then asked whether it was “appropriate” for Huggins to lobby Clifford and Clifford’s deceased predecessor Phil Pagano — either on behalf of his own construction company or other African-American contractors.
“The way I look at it, there’s an appropriate authority looking into [those] questions,” the mayor said.
“But I called Larry on Friday, took the initiative. We had a good conversation. And I want Metra, which serves the city, its residents and communities taking people where they live to jobs and be able to get back and forth — [to] get back and hit the re-start button so they can do what they’re supposed to be doing.”
For weeks, Emanuel deflected blame to the RTA board when asked whether he still had confidence in Huggins.
He accused the RTA of being asleep at the switch when the Metra patronage scandal broke, triggering Clifford’s ouster made possible by a $718,000 severance agreement. He called Huggins “one person out of 11” on the Metra board.
Last Friday, the mayor abruptly changed his tune by calling Huggins and demanding his resignation. Huggins is the owner and president of Riteway-Huggins Construction Services and a prolific fund raiser for key politicians, including County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Clifford has described Huggins and former Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran as key go-betweens in relaying the patronage demands of House Speaker Michael Madigan and in demanding Clifford’s ouster when the former Metra executive director refused to go along with Madigan’s request.
Huggins has denied wrongdoing.