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State hearing into Metra severance deal explodes with charges of “hush money” and Madigan role

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan | Sun-Times files

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan | Sun-Times files

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Updated: August 13, 2013 6:31AM

A Metra Board member claimed that his colleagues issued a lucrative severance package to ex-CEO Alex Clifford that was largely “hush money.”

Speaker of the House Michael Madigan’s office was described as lobbying Metra to give a friend of the powerful Democrat a raise.

Frustrated lawmakers accused Metra Board members of “rolling over” to Clifford’s settlement demands.

Those were the most explosive fireworks at a state hearing Thursday before the House Mass Transit Committee.

But most of the witnesses asked to appear before the committee to discuss Clifford’s controversial 26-month, $718,000 separation agreement never showed up.

Missing from the nearly six-hour discussion were nine of 11 Metra Board members and Clifford himself.

Early in the nearly six-hour hearing, Joseph Gagliardo, the rail agency’s lawyer, told state Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago) and her fellow panel members about the request from Madigan’s office ­— a request the lawyer insisted was not political.

“Elected officials don’t lose their First Amendment rights to talk to people,” Gagliardo testified.

“Speaker Madigan inquired about a raise for an employee. It’s not inappropriate for an elected official to inquire about a wage increase for somebody. It’s not based on politics,” Gagliardo said.

Earlier this week, Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran said Clifford and his attorney had argued that if Clifford’s contract was not renewed, it would be in retaliation for Clifford reporting “alleged illegal conduct” to the Metra Board — supposedly political pressure involving hiring and contract awards. Before his exit, Clifford initially threatened a “whistleblower lawsuit” and was asking for more than the $718,000 package he got.

In a prepared statement released Thursday, Madigan said only that his office recommended Metra bosses give employee Patrick Ward a raise.

Madigan, who praised Ward’s academic and professional career in the statement, said he and Ward have worked together “on a variety of projects” over the past 15 years; his statement didn’t elaborate on those projects.

The discussion about the raise began with Ward contacting Madigan’s office in roughly March 2012, according to Madigan’s statement.

Ward, a Metra labor relations specialist since 2008, notified Madigan’s office that “in spite of being asked to assume expanded tasks with additional responsibilities in his position, his $57,000 salary had not increased in more than three years,” Madigan’s statement said,

“Given the information presented to my office, we forwarded a recommendation to Metra senior staff that Mr. Ward be considered for a salary adjustment. My office’s recommendation supplemented an endorsement which I understand he received from his supervisor, who concluded Mr. Ward was underpaid and that his job performance and education warranted a salary adjustment. ”

But Clifford ultimately rejected the recommendation, Madigan said. The House Speaker said he then withdrew his recommendation for the raise.

Ward has since “voluntarily” left Metra’s employment, according to Madigan’s statement.

Metra Board member Jack Schaffer, the only board member to vote against Clifford’s severance package, dropped his own bomb Thursday when he charged that in his view, the Clifford severance deal initially estimated to be worth $750,000 was actually “$250,000 for exit, $500,000 for hush.’ ’’

Asked by State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) what the Metra board wanted Clifford to “shut up about,’’ Schaffer said, Schaffer urged Metra officials to “give [Clifford] clearance and let him come in’’ and talk freely to the committee.

Clifford wanted to submit to the state committee a key April 2013 memo he gave board members outlining alleged pressure, but Metra attorneys said to do so would violate certain confidentiality clauses in his $718,000 deal because the memo was an “internal confidential personnel record.’’

“I don’t know why they won’t release this document,’’ Schaffer told the committee. “It’s not some nuclear bomb.’’

Gagliardo said Clifford was free to talk to the committee, but he just couldn’t discuss certain things or share documents that might subject the Metra Board “to liability.’’

Schaffer said that after O’Halloran took over as Metra Chair in December, it quickly became clear that O’Halloran and Metra Board member Larry Huggins were “out to get Alex.”

The June 21 vote on a “separation agreement” that ousted Clifford with only eight months left on his contract was because board members “wanted him to go away. It’s a black mark on the board,’’ Schaffer said.

Metra attorneys have contended the $718,000 package came only after Clifford threatened to file a whistleblower suit, alleging Board members did not want to renew his contract because he told them he had been pressured to make political hires and contract awards.

Three examples were given: a request by state Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) of the Latino Caucus that Clifford consider a Latino for an upcoming job opening; the inquiry from Madigan’s office; and complaints from African-American congressmen about the lack of jobs for black contractors in the Englewood flyover project.

Metra attorneys said they believed they could successfully fight any Clifford suit, but to do so would cost more in legal fees than the settlement while simultaneously putting an “intangible” toll on Metra operations and morale.

Transit Committee member and Rep. Maria Antonio Berrios (D-Chicago) said she was present when the Latino Caucus talked with Clifford. She called Clifford’s claims “unfounded” and asked “Why are we giving him so much money? It does not seem right.”

Several House Committee members said they feared Metra was making itself a target for lawsuits if it wasn’t willing to fight claims it could win.

“If Metra believes [Clifford’s] claims are frivolous, make him prove it,’’ Franks said. We shouldn’t be rolling over like this.”

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