Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford offered an insider's look at Illinois' culture of political back-scratching yesterday as he provided the most detailed accounting yet of patronage allegations that he says led to his departure from the commuter rail agency.
In his first public comments since leaving, Clifford accused three state lawmakers of interfering with personnel decisions and blasted two key Metra board members for allegedly pushing contracts that benefited their own business associates.
Clifford took repeated swipes at Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the all-powerful legislator who holds great sway over transit funding and who asked the agency to give one of his political foot soldiers a raise.
The legislative inspector general's office confirmed Wednesday that it was investigating the claims for any legal or ethical violations, though Clifford said he does not believe Madigan broke any laws by making the request. He did, however, offer a rare public — and personal — slap at the speaker.
"I thought it was an ethical and moral character flaw," he said.
Metra board Chairman Brad O'Halloran has forwarded Clifford's allegations to the state's executive inspector general. O'Halloran has denied Clifford's claims, including a suggestion that he tried to secure a banking contract for an institution to which he has significant ties.
"What we heard ... was a whole lot of hooey," O'Halloran said.
Clifford appeared Wednesday before the Regional Transportation Authority to discuss the reasons behind his departure. Constrained by a confidentiality clause in his severance package, Clifford largely restricted his comments to the patronage accusations he raised in a stinging April 3 memorandum to the Metra board. He resigned from the agency June 21.
After sending the memo, he threatened to file a whistle-blower lawsuit against Metra over the allegations. The move prompted the agency to negotiate with him a $718,000 severance package containing a nondisclosure clause meant to keep his patronage claims secret.
Metra eventually released the memo to state lawmakers amid harsh criticism about the deal, paving the way for Clifford to answer questions from the RTA. The agency has oversight authority over the nation's second-largest commuter rail system.
Often speaking in a clipped tone in keeping with his Marine background, Clifford went beyond the memo's scope at the RTA board's urging, as he accused former acting Metra Chairman Larry Huggins of granting a no-bid contract to a business associate without the board's approval. The allegation is not in the memorandum, but agency lawyers are aware of his claim, Clifford said.
He relayed that Huggins worked with former Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, to award a $200,000 consulting contract to Target Group to help recruit minority bidders for the Englewood Flyover, a $93 million railroad bridge on the South Side. Target Group is owned by Joe Williams, a longtime Huggins business associate.
Public records show Huggins and Williams own a real estate development company together. That company shares an office suite with Target Group in the South Loop, according to documents filed with the Illinois secretary of state's office.
Huggins denied any involvement in Target Group's business and said Williams' contracts with Metra predated his 1997 appointment to the agency's board.
"Have I committed a crime or a sin because I know Joe Williams? No," Huggins said.
Metra records show the agency began talking with Target about the Englewood project in April 2010, a month before Pagano killed himself as he was about to be fired for stealing money.
Clifford criticized Target Group's work, which he said did not meet expectations and ran $70,000 over budget. While grappling with the company's performance, Clifford said he received a phone call from Huggins asking why Williams' payments were late.
Though Metra met its legal obligation for minority contracts on the Englewood Flyover in 2012, Huggins, then the acting board chairman, insisted Metra hold up the project until $10 million for minority subcontractors was secured, according to the memo.
At the time, Rush was threatening to block it because he said it didn't provide enough jobs for the economically depressed Englewood neighborhood.
The board eventually approved the original contract without agreeing to Huggins' proposal, but it did agree to a "memorandum of understanding" with the construction company to boost the share of African-American construction workers.