CHICAGO — 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 into the job 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, which critics have called hush money and a waste of taxpayer funds. Clifford alleged that House Speaker Michael Madigan pushed Metra staff for a pay raise for a political pal and that Madigan and another politician also sought patronage hires. Clifford also described an episode in which he was asked to simply write a $50,000 check to an organization of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush's choosing.
When he refused, Clifford said he got a taste of Illinois politics at its worst.
In hiring a new director, Metra's board had searched for "somebody who would be squeaky clean and not tainted by, if you will, Illinois politics," Clifford said. He was just a year into the job when Madigan pushed for a campaign contributor to get a pay raise at his Metra job.
"This is my first ... experience with things that I've heard about Illinois politics but not yet experienced," Clifford said of that incident.
Clifford was speaking to the Regional Transportation Authority board, which is auditing the severance deal, under which he could get up to $718,000. His appearance came after Metra was pressured to partially release him from a confidentiality agreement.
Clifford was hired in February 2011, after 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 serious blow to one of the nation's largest commuter rail networks as it was struggling to make needed capital improvements.
Hiring Clifford was a central plank of the reform program Metra presented to the Federal Transit Administration to get those funding restrictions lifted.
Clifford, a former Marine who rose through the ranks at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said he took that reform mandate seriously but was ultimately pushed out by several Metra board members who he says were angered by the course he was taking.
"This whole thing is a classic Chicago tragedy," said transportation researcher Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University. "We've pushed for reform and now we've proved that we're not ready for it."
"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," Schwieterman said.
In 3½ 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 in retaliation for his stance.
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. Brown said of Clifford's remarks Wednesday that "he appeared to have an excuse for every screw-up."
The employee, a labor relations specialist, never got the raise and quit. He subsequently landed a job with the Illinois Department of Central Management Services on a recommendation from Madigan.
Clifford also says he got an inappropriate request for a hiring favor from a member of the Legislature's Latino caucus.
And he accuses a Metra board member of intervening in a major construction contract in an attempt to strike a deal with Rush for a $50,000 subcontract to be awarded to the National Black Chambers of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Clifford said that when he asked, the board member did not even know what work the organization was supposed to do.
"He just wanted me to call Congressman Rush's office and find out who I was supposed to write this $50,000 check to," Clifford said. "And I said, 'Well, I can't do that.'"
Rush's spokeswoman, Debra Johnson, said the congressman was recommending the chamber of commerce be tapped to oversee the recruitment of more minority contractors for a construction project.