CHICAGO (AP) — A former California transit executive tapped to clean up Chicago’s scandal-tarnished Metra commuter rail agency said Wednesday he was pushed out barely two years later for doing exactly that and resisting pressure from some of Illinois most powerful politicians.
Alex Clifford was allowed to speak publicly for the first time Wednesday about his lucrative buyout agreement, which critics have called hush money and a waste of taxpayer funds. Inquiries into the deal over the past week have led to revelations that House Speaker Michael Madigan asked Clifford’s staffers to give a pay raise to a Metra employee who was a contributor to political campaigns benefiting Madigan.
When he refused, Clifford — then barely a year into his new job — said he got a taste of Illinois’ politics at its worst.
“This is my first … experience with things that I’ve heard about Illinois politics but not yet experienced,” he told members of the Regional Transit Authority board, which is auditing the severance deal, under which Clifford could get up to $718,000.
Clifford was hired in February 2011, after a scandal in which Metra’s former executive director was accused of defrauding the agency out of about $475,000. The scandal prompted the federal government to restrict the rail agency’s access to federal funds, a huge blow to one of the nation’s largest commuter rail networks as it was struggling with a backlog of needed improvements.
Hiring Clifford was a central plank of the reform program Metra presented to the Federal Transit Administration to get funding restrictions lifted.
Clifford, who worked for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority for years, said he took the mandate for transparency and accountability seriously but was ultimately pushed out by several Metra board members whom he described as not being on board with those efforts.
In 3 ½ hours of questioning Wednesday, Clifford detailed allegations from a confidential April 3 memo he wrote to Metra’s board when, as he tells it, it became apparent his contract might not be renewed.
Much of the attention was focused on Madigan’s support for an employee pay raise.
“Not that it would have made a difference, but keep in mind he didn’t even submit any information along with that to say why this person deserved a raise,” Clifford said of Madigan with a laugh.
Clifford said in the memo that when he rejected the requested raise, Metra board Chairman Brad O’Halloran indicated it would be taken into account during deliberations over whether to renew Clifford’s employment contract.
“He told me that he needed to arrange a meeting with Speaker Madigan to assess ‘what damage I have done’ to Metra and its future funding by my refusal to accede to Speaker Madigan’s requests,” Clifford wrote in the memo.
Clifford said Wednesday that he believed Madigan’s actions, while perhaps not illegal, betrayed “a moral and ethical flaw.”
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the House speaker was merely supporting a recommendation by the employee’s supervisor and did nothing improper.
Transportation researcher Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University said the industry is not immune from outside political pressure and that’s especially true in the Chicago area because agencies are in competition with each other for public funding.
“I think Clifford refused to be a wheeler and dealer, and it’s hard to survive in this town without trading favors with political powerbrokers,” said Schwieterman. “And he wouldn’t do that. And I admire him for that.”