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Metra Director Pagano commits suicide hours before possible firing

Caption
(Danielle Guerra - dguerra@nwherald.com; helicopter photo courtesy of Fox 32)
Emergency crews work on the scene of a fatal train collision that occurred on the tracks near Hillside and Terra Cotta roads by Sternes Woods Park in Crystal Lake on Friday morning. Metra executive director Phil Pagano (bottom right), who is being investigated for wrongdoing at the regional transportation authority, was identified as the victim.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Longtime Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano killed himself Friday by stepping in front of a commuter train, just hours before he likely faced firing for allegedly misappropriating funds for personal use.

Pagano, 60, walked in front of a Chicago-bound Metra train about 8 a.m. about 30 feet north of the Hillside Road crossing just northeast of Sterne’s Woods Park. The crossing is about a mile and a half east of Pagano's home.

He had been on paid administrative leave since April 30, pending an investigation into allegations that he secured an unauthorized $56,000 bonus last year on top of his $269,625 annual salary. Pagano had been executive director of Metra for 20 years and had worked for the agency for six years before that.

The train engineer saw Pagano and slammed on the brakes but was unable to stop in time, McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren said at a Friday afternoon news conference. He estimated that the train was traveling between 45 and 50 mph, and that only five to 10 seconds elapsed between when the engineer saw Pagano and the collision.

"The engineer looked right into the face of the man," Nygren said.

Pagano left a letter stating his intentions, and other evidence found at the scene and at Pagano's home also indicated that Pagano intended to kill himself, said Nygren, who would not elaborate. Pagano's car was found at a nearby gravel parking lot for the Prairie Trail bike path, which runs parallel to the tracks.

Pagano spoke with his longtime friend Al Jourdan, who once served as Republican Party state chairman and county party chairman, the night before and morning of his death, sources said. Jourdan could not be reached for comment.

The train was headed from McHenry to the Pingree Road station. Metra provided taxi service for the 24 passengers on board, none of whom were injured.

Pagano took his life about two hours before the Metra Board of Directors was to convene an emergency meeting to take "action concerning the Executive Director" and create a committee to review Metra's financial practices.

Jack Schaffer, the board's McHenry County representative and friend of Pagano, said he and several other members were sitting in a conference room when they heard the news.

"A couple of staff people came up to us, and you could see by the looks on their faces that something incredibly bad had happened, and then they told us," Schaffer said.

Board members canceled the meeting and expressed their condolences in a news release about an hour later, once authorities told them that Pagano's next of kin had been contacted.

"Today, we shall remember the good work he achieved with our board of directors and the men and women of Metra. He was dedicated to our passengers and he always considered the men and women of Metra his family and there is a tremendous sense of loss within the agency," the statement said.

Schaffer said there probably would have been a vote Friday by the 11-member board to fire Pagano, based in part on an interim report produced by the ongoing investigation. Pagano was not expected to attend the meeting, Schaffer and Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.

The controversy surrounding Pagano became public last week, after Metra leaders determined that questions from Crain's Chicago Business following up on tips about the bonus merited further scrutiny. Board Chairwoman Carole Doris asked Pagano on April 27 not to come to work or conduct Metra business until further notice.

Board members convened an emergency meeting April 30 in which they put Pagano on paid leave. They also hired the Itasca law firm of James G. Sotos & Associates to investigate "potential financial irregularities" linked to the agency director. Sotos disclosed little about the investigation, but said that "more serious possible allegations of potential misconduct" had come to light.

As Sotos continued his outside investigation, other agencies followed suit.

The Federal Transit Administration put Metra on a status that requires any federal grants to the rail service to get additional scrutiny. On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., asked the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general to investigate whether Metra misused federal funds.

On Thursday, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office announced that its public corruption unit had launched a criminal probe.

Sotos' investigation will continue, Pardonnet said. Sotos, who could not be reached for comment, had intended to report some of his findings to the board Friday. He said last week that he expected his final report to be ready by May 14.

The board intended to tackle much more Friday than Pagano's employment. The agenda included the creation of a Financial Practices and Reporting Review Committee to conduct a top-to-bottom analysis of Metra's fiscal practices. Also on the agenda was the appointment of an acting inspector general to receive information and complaints about Metra's business practices.

"A lot of actions will be taken in the future," Pardonnet said. "They would have been taken today if it were not for this tragic turn of events."

Schaffer said the board wants to ensure that whatever wrongdoing is uncovered never happens again. But Friday was not the day to do that, he said.

"Right now, we're focused on remembering a really great guy who took a bunch of ragtag, broken-down commuter lines on the brink of bankruptcy and turning it into the finest commuter rail system in the country through 20 years of hard work," Schaffer said.

"I can't tell you how much this guy is going to be missed."

McHenry County Coroner Marlene Lantz said she is waiting for an autopsy, scheduled for today, before officially ruling on a cause of death.

Pagano is the latest of several political figures in the region to commit suicide in the wake of allegations of wrongdoing. Former Blagojevich fundraiser Christopher Kelly overdosed last September, and former Chicago School Board President Michael Scott shot himself last November.

• Northwest Herald reporters Jillian Duchnowski, Sarah Sutschek and Brett Rowland contributed to this story.

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