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RTA board member’s analysis rips ex-Metra chair, colleague

William Coulson

William Coulson

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The actions of two former leading Metra Board members — Chairman Brad O’Halloran and colleague Larry Huggins — created “substantial” civil claims that took an $871,000 settlement to resolve, according to the draft copy of an analysis by an RTA board member.

The forensic analysis by William Coulson, a former federal prosecutor, also blasts Metra officials for spending $340,000 on “damage control’’ to address, hide and “spin” the allegations of former CEO Alex Clifford. The draft analysis was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Coulson’s evaluation of the civil claim that Clifford could have waged against Metra is expected to be released Wednesday — along with the preliminary results of an RTA audit of the Clifford fiasco — during the RTA board’s monthly meeting.

Coulson volunteered to conduct the analysis, based on his background assessing the strength of possible cases as a former supervisor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The one-two RTA punch is the latest fallout from the Metra board’s controversial June 21 decision to award Clifford what the RTA calculates was up to $871,000 over 26 months in exchange for Clifford resigning eight months early.

The deal followed Clifford’s threats of a whistleblower action, based on his charges that O’Halloran and Huggins conspired to oust him for failing to bend to patronage requests — including from Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan — and contract demands.

O’Halloran resigned Aug. 1 amid a firestorm of criticism about the Clifford deal. Huggins bowed out a day later, after Mayor Rahm Emanuel forced his resignation.

Before their departures, during public hearings, O’Halloran accused Clifford of spewing a “whole lot of hooey” while Huggins derided Clifford as a “spin” doctor.

That’s not how Coulson contends a jury could have seen it, according to the draft of his analysis.

“A judge or jury could credit Mr. Clifford’s credibility over that of Mr. O’Halloran and Mr. Huggins,” Coulson concludes. “These considerations elevate the substantiality of Clifford’s claims. . . . Metra could well have lost the threatened lawsuit.’’

A jury would merely need to find that Clifford’s civil charges were “more probable than not” to rule against Metra, Coulson notes.

From the “undisputed facts alone,” a “reasonable jury could well infer that Clifford’s refusal to cater to the elected officials was at least a ‘contributing cause’ of his demise at the hands of O’Halloran and Huggins,’’ Coulson wrote. A “contributing cause” is all that’s necessary to prove a whistleblower claim, he added.

Metra’s and O’Halloran’s failure to fully disclose information to investigating bodies could well have undermined their position with a jury, Coulson wrote. Meanwhile, Metra would have had a far harder time impugning Clifford, especially given letters of recommendation written by four Metra Board members who signed off on Clifford’s departure, Coulson said.

However, Coulson notes that, at the time of the deal, there is no evidence that Metra Board members knew of a $10 million Metra liability insurance policy that could have covered the costs of defending any Clifford suit.

As a result, Metra board members “operated within their business judgment discretion” in approving the Clifford separation agreement, although O’Halloran should have recused himself from voting on it, Coulson wrote.

“But that is not the end of the inquiry into the ‘fiscal prudence’ of this whole affair,’’ Coulson writes. “Metra has spent over $340,000 on attorneys, investigators and public relations in response to the Clifford allegations.

“And the fact remains that the conduct of two leading Metra Board members — Mr. O’Halloran and Mr. Huggins — created the substantial legal claims for which Metra has expended great sums of public moneys.”

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