Memo by former Metra CEO alleges proliferation of patronage requests

Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, left, said that he ordered his staff to ignore requests from Michael Madigan. (Abel Uribe/ Chicago Tribune)

When Metra CEO Alex Clifford asked about his chances for keeping his job, he received a bruising reply from the rail agency's board chairman, according to a memo that offers a snapshot of political clout as allegedly practiced in Illinois.

Clifford had displeased Metra board Chairman Brad O'Halloran by denying requests for jobs, raises or contracts for friends of House Speaker Michael Madigan and other influential politicians, the April 3 memo alleged.

According to Clifford's written account, O'Halloran believed that saying no to Madigan was serious enough to threaten funding for the commuter agency, which carries 300,000 riders daily in the Chicago area.

"When I asked Mr. O'Halloran about the status of discussions to consider renewing my employment contract, he told me that he needed to arrange a meeting with Speaker Madigan to assess 'what damage I have done' to Metra and future funding by my refusal to accede to Speaker Madigan's requests," the memo reads.

Clifford's explosive document, which he sent to board members before his controversial June 21 ouster, depicts a transit agency besieged by political pressures to show favoritism in hiring and contracts — while top board members such as O'Halloran sided with politicians.

"Clout" is hardly a new concept in Chicago, but the memo Friday offered a rare, richly detailed glimpse of alleged attempts by powerful politicians to call the shots at an agency created to serve the riding public.

The eight-page memo has figured prominently in the ongoing investigation of Clifford's removal from Metra's helm and the severance package of about $719,000 he received — a payout one frustrated board member has described as "hush money."

The memorandum, which has not been released publicly, was turned over Friday to the House Mass Transit Committee after lawmakers pressed for its release. For weeks, the agency had asserted the memo was protected by the severance package's controversial confidentiality agreement and denied Freedom of Information Act requests for its release.

In the memo, Clifford invoked the name of his attorney Michael Shakman — who has become synonymous with the fight against political patronage in Illinois. Shakman represented Clifford in the negotiations that led to his golden parachute severance package.

Since 1969, Shakman has challenged one of the most enduring traditions in Chicago politics: hiring based on clout. A series of court orders in the 1970s and '80s, commonly known as the Shakman decrees, formally ended patronage in scores of city and state offices.

Dick Simpson, a political science expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said patronage in Illinois was dealt a strong blow by the Shakman decrees but won't be eradicated until machine politics have been eliminated.

Patronage at Metra has been a "continuing pattern" over the years, he said. "The previous executive director (Phil Pagano) committed suicide because of corruption in the agency. Patronage, nepotism and corruption go together with machine politics."

Simpson said he wasn't surprised that Madigan would be accused of trying to clout a political ally into a job.

"Mike Madigan is first and foremost a ward committeeman and political boss, even before his role as speaker," Simpson said.

Other critics say they are not surprised that allegations are being raised at Metra, an agency that acquired a reputation as a haven for Republican patronage after it was created in 1983.

"It's no secret that Metra is a repository of patronage," said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, who has been one of Metra's most vocal critics.

State Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, agreed.

"To remove the CEO, who is supposedly nonpolitical and professional ... by the board, a political entity, almost smacks of political interference," Harris said.

For decades, the agency's chairmen were Republicans: first Jeffrey Ladd from McHenry County and then Carole Doris from DuPage County.

Pagano, the former longtime executive director, flourished under their chairmanships until he was caught in 2010 taking $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay and forging Doris' signature to cover it up. Pagano committed suicide May 10, 2010, and Clifford was hired from Los Angeles in 2011 as the new sheriff to "clean up Dodge City," as his proponents described the former Marine.