The prosecutor who put Illinois’ two previous governors in prison has been tapped by the current one to clean up the Chicago area’s mass-transit agencies.
Gov. Pat Quinn issued an executive order Thursday creating the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force to investigate fraud and suggest reforms in the wake of the latest scandal at Metra. Among the appointees to the 15-member group is former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who led the Operation Safe Road and Operation Board Games investigations that led to the imprisonment of former Republican Gov. George Ryan and Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The order came hours before a fifth Metra Board member stepped down since allegations arose that it paid its former CEO up to $718,000 in “hush money” to keep him from going public with allegations of political patronage hiring.
The resignation was unrelated to the developing scandal, but joins two recent resignations on the Regional Transportation Authority Board and questions that have arisen regarding a Quinn appointment to the Chicago Transit Authority Board.
“It’s clear that the mass-transit system in northeastern Illinois is not working for taxpayers,” Quinn said in a statement. “This task force is a step forward to make our transit system worthy of the public’s trust.”
Quinn’s executive order sets a deadline to provide initial recommendations to state lawmakers before the late October start of the fall veto session, and a Jan. 31 deadline for its final report. The task force will focus on all four mass-transit agencies: Metra, Pace and the CTA, and the umbrella RTA that has financial oversight of them.
Among the task force’s members is a McHenry resident, Don Tantillo, a retired Wheeling High School teacher and debate coach who drove a CTA bus while earning his degree. He said he is unsure how his name came up, except that he filled out a form to volunteer to make things better upon Quinn becoming governor when Blagojevich was removed from office.
“I feel tremendously honored. What can I say? I hope that my ability to listen and think critically can help in some way,” Tantillo said.
This latest Metra scandal began when the Metra Board in June approved a generous severance package for former CEO Alex Clifford with eight months remaining on his first contract – the sole opposing vote came from McHenry County representative and Metra Board Treasurer Jack Schaffer. As lawmaker outrage grew, Clifford alleged he was forced out because he would not turn a blind eye to patronage requests, some of which lead to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Clifford accused former Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran and board member Larry Huggins of wanting him gone for refusing a request by Madigan to give a raise to one employee and to hire an unnamed person for another job.
Clifford also said he refused to fire employees at O’Halloran’s request and opposed contracting decisions by Huggins that Clifford called inappropriate regarding the Englewood Flyover rail bridge on Chicago’s South Side.
The Metra Board hired Clifford in 2011 to clean up the agency after the scandal surrounding former CEO Phil Pagano, who led the agency for two decades. Pagano killed himself in 2010 near his rural Crystal Lake home by stepping in front of a Metra train hours before the board was set to fire him for collecting $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts and other fiscal irregularities.
Both O’Halloran and Huggins have stepped down in recent weeks, as did Kane and DuPage counties’ representatives on the Metra Board. Cook County Board Chairwoman Toni Preckwinkle, who gets one of the 11 appointments to the board, asked for and received the resignation of member Stanley Rakestraw for not meeting the residency requirement.
The Chicago Tribune discovered that he has lived for the past two years in downtown Chicago, and not in suburban Cook County as required for the seat.
Calls to overhaul the mass-transit boards began with the Pagano scandal and are escalating with the Clifford scandal and unrelated resignations at other boards. One RTA Board member resigned after a review concluded the law forbade him from holding a board seat and his seat on the Illinois Human Rights Commission. Another resigned after it became public that a judge ordered him to repay a $91,000 state services grant.
Quinn himself drew fire for a contentious appointment to the CTA Board. Critics blasted Quinn’s appointment of Frank Zuccarelli, a who would have added the $25,000 salary that comes with the seat to his six-figure job as supervisor of Thornton Township. Zuccarelli, who dropped out Tuesday, is also a Democratic precinct committeeman.
State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, filed a bill earlier this week that would close the loophole allowing township officeholders and appointees to “double-dip” as appointees to the four mass-transit boards.