A state legislative hearing investigating the severance package for Metra's ousted CEO yielded new details about the controversial deal Thursday, including the revelation that powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan had asked the agency to give one of his political foot soldiers a raise.
Metra officials, who have been highly secretive about the settlement, also confirmed for the first time that former CEO Alex Clifford implicated board Chairman Brad O'Halloran and Vice Chairman Larry Huggins in an eight-page memorandum outlining the patronage pressure he felt during his tenure.
O'Halloran — who repeatedly denied being named in the memo during a Tribune interview earlier this week — voted to approve the $718,000 severance deal after Clifford threatened to file a whistle-blower lawsuit if he could not reach a financial settlement with the agency. Huggins voted present.
Metra officials spent much of the six-hour session in Chicago trying to explain their decision to award the settlement, telling skeptical lawmakers that they had little choice after Clifford informed them that he believed his contract was not being renewed in retaliation for resisting patronage pressure. If Clifford had sued, the legal costs would have been significantly higher than his severance package, officials said.
That argument, however, took a bruising from Metra board member Jack Schaffer, of McHenry County, who told the House Mass Transit Committee that Clifford was pushed out because he didn't know how to play the political game in Illinois.
"This is $250,000 in severance and $500,000 in hush money," Schaffer said of the severance deal. "You have not heard the whole story in any way, shape or form."
Schaffer cast the lone vote in opposition to the June 21 agreement.
Clifford declined to appear before the committee, citing his lawyer's advice and blaming Metra's attorneys for preventing him from testifying. Metra officials denied that suggestion, but said the former CEO would be prohibited from reading or distributing his patronage memorandum.
Asked to respond Thursday, Clifford said in an email that he stood by his attorney's recommendation not to attend.
The session stood in sharp contrast to Metra's perfunctory appearance before the Regional Transportation Authority board Wednesday, as state lawmakers took turns mocking the deal, and demanding that the names of accused public officials be revealed.
They also threatened to subpoena Clifford's memo if the agency did not voluntarily turn it over. The memo became the equivalent of a pivotal "smoking gun" at the hearing.
With the state inspector general watching from the gallery, some legislators even suggested they would have preferred the case to go trial so the grievances could be aired in public rather than shielded by the settlement's nondisclosure clause.
"I wish it would have gone to litigation because I think there are a lot of systemic issues about how this very important service board is run," said Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields. "This is a public entity. This is not a corporation ... with confidentiality agreements."
The sparks flew early, as Madigan issued an unusual press statement minutes before the hearing began, acknowledging that he had sought a raise for a longtime political supporter who worked for Metra. Until that moment, Metra had not mentioned Madigan's connection to Clifford's patronage complaint.
Madigan said his office recommended in March 2012 that Patrick Ward, a labor relations specialist who made $57,000 annually, receive a merit adjustment based on his education level and job performance. The speaker said that he went to bat for Ward because he hadn't had a raise in three years despite an increase in responsibilities.
At the time, the agency had frozen salary increases for all noncontract employees amid budget constraints.
After learning about Madigan's request, Clifford called Ward into his office and asked about his ties to the speaker, Metra attorney Joseph Gagliardo said. Records show that Ward has worked for Madigan campaigns for more than 15 years and served as a voter registrar for Madigan-backed groups.
Though Ward's supervisor supported a salary boost, Clifford allegedly expressed concern about Madigan's intervention.
"Upon learning of this, the recommendation was withdrawn," the speaker said in a statement.
Ward could not be reached for comment. He is no longer with Metra, Madigan said.
Gagliardo told lawmakers that the Madigan inquiry was mentioned in Clifford's patronage complaint, but he contends the speaker didn't cross the line by inquiring about his friend's salary.
"Elected officials don't lose their legal right to talk to people," Gagliardo said.
Gagliardo would not answer a Tribune reporter's question about why he failed to mention Madigan's ties to the Clifford patronage complaint at the RTA hearing a day earlier, even though he outlined allegations in Clifford's memo.
Madigan's spokesman said the speaker issued the statement Thursday because it was a legislative hearing, and he wanted lawmakers to know about his connection to the controversy.
Metra officials confirmed for the first time that Clifford thinks that Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, applied inappropriate pressure by asking the CEO if he would consider a candidate backed by Latino lawmakers for a deputy director post.
Clifford refused to take the candidate's name, Gagliardo said.
Though Gagliardo informed the RTA of the allegation Wednesday, he did not name the lawmaker involved.
Arroyo has denied that he recommended people for Metra jobs or pressured Clifford. He told the Tribune that Clifford invented the patronage allegations as an excuse after the agency lost faith in him.
Gagliardo often referred to his 35 years of labor law experience and said settling "difficult" cases like Clifford's was preferable to protracted litigation.
When asked by lawmakers, Gagliardo said he had no accounting yet of his fees, but said they could exceed $100,000. Legislators seized on this, saying that the whole Clifford affair could end up costing more than a million dollars.
Lawmakers repeatedly brought up Metra's troubled history, which hit a nadir on May 7, 2010, when former Executive Director Phil Pagano committed suicide after an investigation showed he took $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay and forged memos to cover it up.
"Phil Pagano, now this — there's a problem" at Metra, Riley said.
Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, demanded the entire Metra board resign or be removed, saying that nothing has changed over the years.
"The (mass transit) system is broken and needs to be fixed," Franks said.
At the end of the marathon session, Chairwoman Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, said the panel would consider holding another meeting regarding the matter, and may consider subpoenaing Clifford. Committee members also called for the release of Clifford's memo, dated April 3.
Mell made a point of singling out the Metra board members who were not in attendance: Jack Partelow of Will County; Paul Darley of DuPage County; Norman Carlson of Lake County; Mike McCoy of Kane County; Huggins of Chicago; and suburban Cook County representatives Don De Graff, Stanley Rakestraw, Arlene Mulder and William Widmer III.
Inspector General Ricardo Meza, who testified, seemed to contradict Metra's argument that it could not turn over the April 3 memo.
Meza acknowledged that even though his office had the document, there was nothing to prohibit its release by others.
"What's left that's so confidential?" said Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton.
Tribune reporter John Chase contributed.Copyright © 2015, CT Now