Metra scandals inspire new severance disclosure law

Sweetheart severance deals between governments and outgoing employees will be secret no more under a bill unanimously passed by House lawmakers.

Inspired by corruption scandals at Metra, House Bill 3664 amends the Illinois Freedom of Information Act to forbid any public body from imposing confidentiality as a condition of receiving any severance agreement funded in any way by public money. Rep. Renee Kosel, R-New Lenox, filed the bill in response to Metra's refusal last year to reveal details to angry state lawmakers about the generous severance package – projected up to $718,000 – it gave to former CEO Alex Clifford.

Clifford left after only two years on the job and with eight months left on his first contract. Clifford later revealed to lawmakers that he was forced out for refusing to comply with patronage requests, some of which he alleged led straight to House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The bill passed on a 106-0 vote Thursday. It is now in the Senate, where Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, is the chief sponsor. It does not force disclosure of any severance agreements reached prior to the bill becoming law.

Clifford was hired in 2011 to help clean up Metra in the wake of 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 Metra Board was set to fire him for collecting $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts. He died owing Metra $127,000 against more than $800,000 he borrowed against his deferred compensation and life insurance funds.

House Bill 3664 cleared committee earlier this month in the wake of two unflattering reports about Metra and Chicago-area mass transit agencies.

The Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in the wake of the Clifford scandal released its final report March 31, which cited "one scandal after another" as among the many reasons supporting its recommendation to merge the three commuter rail boards into one and abolish the Regional Transportation Authority. Two days later, the Better Government Association released the FBI file on Pagano, which revealed the possibility that his need for cash stemmed from numerous extramarital affairs.

The transit task force's report also addressed patronage and clout. It stated that notes in past decades suggested that Madigan "did not recommend people to be hired – he in fact decided they were hired." Clifford had also alleged that Madigan sought a pay hike for a Metra employee who raised campaign funds.

Madigan's office on Wednesday released a statement that the state's legislative inspector general has closed his investigation into Madigan and two other Democratic House members after finding no legal violations.

State lawmakers in the wake of the Metra scandals have given the Office of the Executive Inspector General the power to investigate the four Chicago-area mass transit boards, and passed legislation stripping their board members of insurance and pension benefits.
Metra is not the only local body that has attempted to keep taxpayer-funded severance agreements private.

The McHenry County College Board in 2009 denied releasing the separation agreement it made with former President Walt Packard, citing FOIA's exemption for personal privacy. The board relented and released the contract a week after the Illinois Supreme Court in an unrelated case ruled that public employee contracts are public record and could not be withheld under FOIA's personal privacy exemption.

The contract turned out to be a standard employment contract with no personal information in it. Packard was made president emeritus for one year and given his same $188,564 salary without expectations of duties or work hours.

Kosel's bill passed despite opposition from several of the state's powerful local government lobbying groups, including the Illinois Municipal League and the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance that represents the legislative interests of school boards, principals and administrators.

A 2011 investigation by the Northwest Herald revealed that local government lobbying groups, whose dues are paid by taxpayer money, have strenuously fought bills to improve state open-government laws and support bills weakening them.

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