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.