CHICAGO – The former CEO of the Metra commuter rail service contends in a memo released Friday that plans for his ouster were tied to his refusal to give into demands by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and others in hiring and pay decisions.
The memo by Alex Clifford has taken center stage in contentious hearings this week over his resignation and $718,000 in severance pay, which some have criticized as a huge waste of taxpayer money.
In the memo to Metra board members, Clifford asserts Madigan had lobbied not only for a pay raise for an associate, but also sought employment for another person. Clifford wrote that he was told he had to leave Metra "for not complying with Speaker Madigan's requests for politically-motivated employment actions," which would result in Metra losing future funding.
Madigan detailed his request for a raise for an associate in his own statement released earlier this week, and Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the request wasn't inappropriate. Brown also said Friday that the speaker has no record of asking for a Metra job for the unnamed individual, but dismissed the idea that either request would have been improper.
Clifford had sought to submit his memo to the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee at a Thursday hearing in Chicago, but Metra attorneys said that making it public would violate confidentiality clauses in his deal. Metra turned over the partly redacted memo to the committee Friday.
The memo also details what Clifford said was inappropriate board interference in Metra personnel decisions and contracts involving a Chicago construction project.
Committee members who read the memo Friday expressed alarm at the allegations but cautioned that more information was needed.
"They absolutely need to be looked at, and if there is any accuracy to them then I think action needs to be taken," said Rep. David Harris, a Republican committee member from Arlington Heights. "Given the seriousness... (this) brings a legitimate question of whether or not the severance package was to keep (Clifford) quiet."
Another committee member, Democrat Jack Franks of Marengo, says the panel did not get all the information during its hearing, and will need to have one with Clifford present to get to the bottom of the controversy.
"Right now these are just allegations on a piece of paper," he said. "I'm not sure what's playing out here. I'm not sure what folks' agendas are and who's all involved. That's why we need a full hearing ..."
Committee chairman Deborah Mell, a Chicago Democrat, noted that the memo revealed far more than what Metra officials alluded to in their testimony Thursday. She said she did not believe Madigan did anything wrong.
"And I think the (board needs) to do a lot of house cleaning and figuring stuff out," she said. "Maybe when they hire someone new (to replace Clifford), let's talk about getting rid of the whole board together and starting fresh."
Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran denied Clifford's assertions in a statement released on Friday. He and other Metra officials have defended the severance package as being cheaper than what the agency would have paid if Clifford had sued after being let go.
"I have never intervened with Metra's staff regarding any jobs or contracts. The Board attempted a fair and unbiased review process for Mr. Clifford that was upended by his threatened legal strategy, which resulted in the settlement," O'Halloran said.
In a one-page statement he prepared for the House committee, Madigan said he asked Metra staff to consider a pay raise for Patrick Ward, who worked as a labor relations specialist. He said Ward had informed the speaker's office that despite increased duties, his $57,000 salary had remained the same for three years.
Madigan said he withdrew the recommendation after Clifford expressed discomfort. Madigan did not mention seeking employment for any of his own associates.
Brown, Madigan's spokesman, said the speaker issued his statement after learning the matter would come up Thursday at the severance deal hearing.
"All Mr. Madigan did was endorse a recommendation made by the employee's supervisor," Brown said. "... It's the exact opposite of any kind of impropriety."
Metra attorney Joseph Gagliardo also told the committee members Madigan's request was not political.
"Elected officials don't lose their First Amendment rights to talk to people," he said. "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."
In his memo, Clifford said he argued with another Metra official over his refusal to accede to Madigan's demands. He claimed Ward had made more than $17,000 in political contributions benefiting Madigan.
Metra board member Jack Schaffer, who voted against Clifford's severance package, told the committee that Clifford's severance deal was "$250,000 for exit, $500,000 for hush."