Metra patronage files

Boxes containing patronage files dating back 30 years at the Metra headquarters in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune / April 15, 2014)

Hand-written index cards reflecting patronage hiring at Metra dating back 30 years contain recommendations from dozens of politicians—a virtual who’s who of clout ranging from Chicago aldermen to state legislators and even a well-respected former U.S. senator.

 The records, released Tuesday to the Tribune as copies of more than 700 index cards, were called “Patronage Files” by the special task force that called for reforming the commuter rail agency.

 The existence of the records was first disclosed in the report issued last month by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, appointed last summer by Gov. Pat Quinn to recommend improvements for Metra and the other transit agencies. The task force was created after ousted CEO Alex Clifford alleged that House Speaker Michael Madigan and other power brokers pressured him on issues ranging from hiring to contracts.

 The cards date roughly from 1983 to 1991, and relate to people who were referred for jobs, promotions or raises by various public officials or others with political influence, the task force said. Some of those people got the jobs they were seeking and others did not, the task force said.

 Images of the handwritten cards, which were redacted in some cases, were released Tuesday by Metra in response to a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

 The task force's March 31 report said Madigan was a “prominent participant” in patronage hiring at Metra.

 But Madigan wasn’t alone.

 The index cards provide a quirky but incomplete history of hiring at Metra. Each card offers a partial snapshot of job candidates, what positions they were seeking or received and who was listed as their patron.

 The jobs range from budget analyst to car cleaner, and the patrons were some of the most colorful characters in Chicago history. They include a host of now-convicted power brokers, from ex-Gov. George Ryan to former Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak and former Metra board member Donald Udstuen. Among the other marquee political names were Madigan, former Gov. Jim Edgar, former Illinois Senate President James “Pate” Philip, ex-Mayor Jane Byrne and even the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon.

 While some cards indicate whether or not a person got a job, there is little to indicate whether or not the patron did anything to help them.

 Some notations on the cards suggested Metra officials stretched to find jobs for unqualified candidates or family members. In some cases, the notations describe how Metra officials went out of their way to track down job candidates who had been recommended by politicians but showed no initiative to pursue the work. In other cases, notes indicate the employees quit within weeks of taking their jobs.

 Prompted by the task force report, Metra on Friday adopted a new anti-patronage measure requiring Metra to log and disclose requests by anyone outside the agency who attempts to influence its employment processes.

 Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said Tuesday he believed the old files should be disclosed but doubted that “files that are 25 years old” would provide many surprises.

 “We all know Metra was really patronage ridden in its early days,” Oberman said during a meeting with the Tribune editorial board. “It’s interesting history (but) it just tells us what we all knew about Illinois politics.

 “It’s been riddled with patronage by both parties, both upstate and downstate, as long as I can remember.”

 Oberman said he was assured that Metra had no additional files. Metra has not ascertained who kept the records or exactly why they were kept, other than the cards appear to contain the names of people who were interested in working at Metra and the names of people who recommended them, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

 About 100 people whose names are on the cards are currently Metra employees, Gillis said. Those employees “are judged on their job performance” and not on the basis of clout, Gillis said.

 According to Metra, the records appear to have been stored at Metra’s corporate headquarters at 547 W. Jackson since the early 1990s. An unnamed Metra employee discovered the records in Metra's labor relations office and the commuter rail agency quickly and voluntarily turned them over to the task force, Metra said.

 The task force report named only Madigan, the longtime speaker and state Democratic chairman, and former Metra board member Donald Udstuen, as political players  who exerted clout to get people hired. It noted that the speaker's alleged efforts to influence personnel actions at Metra in 2012 led to the task force's creation.

 Not only did Madigan have the power to recommend people for positions at Metra, but “he in effect decided they were hired,” said the task force report, written in part by former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.