Ex-Metra CEO accused board members of pressing him to hire pals

Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran, right, chats with Joe Gagliardo, Metra's outside counsel, following a special meeting with the Regional Transit Authority. (Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune)

Ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford implicated at least two board members in a patronage complaint shortly before he began negotiating a generous severance package with the commuter rail system, officials publicly acknowledged for the first time Wednesday.

Those board members — whom Metra has refused to name — also voted on the $718,000 severance deal despite Clifford's threats to file a lawsuit if he could not reach a financial settlement with the agency.

But members of the Regional Transportation Authority did not press Metra for additional details about those revelations during a Wednesday hearing, even though the agency oversees Metra and had advertised its meeting as an opportunity to force the commuter rail agency to drop the veil of secrecy shrouding the controversial deal.

Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran read a lengthy prepared statement at the beginning of the two-hour hearing, then largely deferred questions about the severance package to the agency's outside attorney.

His remarks, as well as comments he made to the Tribune on Tuesday, included several unflattering descriptions of Clifford's leadership and so angered the former CEO that Clifford unsuccessfully demanded that Metra allow him to appear Thursday before the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee investigating the deal.

Clifford also has signaled willingness to turn over a copy of an eight-page memorandum in which he outlines the patronage allegations. The memo, which he gave to the board in April, prompted settlement talks with the agency.

Clifford resigned in June after agreeing to a severance package worth more than three times his annual salary. The agreement prohibited either side from speaking about it, unless questioned by a legislative body or an oversight board such as the RTA.

"Unfortunately, Metra has thus far refused to consent to the release of the April 3 memorandum," Clifford attorney Edward Feldman wrote in a letter to the committee. "Mr. Clifford stands ready, willing and able to release the memorandum ... or to testify before the committee if Metra were to withdraw its objections and implied threats against him."

Clifford said late Wednesday that Metra contends his appearance would violate the agreement.

State Rep. Deb Mell said she was disappointed that Clifford probably would not appear.

"I think all parties involved should show up," she said. "We don't want one side of the story. We have committee members who are looking forward to finding out more."

The RTA board did not ask Clifford to testify and showed little interest in inviting him to a future meeting, as it extracted few new details about his severance package Wednesday and demanded few detailed explanations about the patronage allegations.

"I'm satisfied with what I heard," Director John Frega said, adding that he believed the RTA was limited in what it could demand. "The RTA has oversight authority, but it's a toothless authority."

Frega was among the few RTA or Metra officials willing to speak with reporters Wednesday after the meeting. The majority left the hearing room from a side door, leaving in their wake several new concerns about the severance package and Clifford's allegations.

According to Metra's account, Clifford was told in March that his contract might not be renewed and that he needed to undergo an extensive performance evaluation. He responded to the news by suggesting that he was being retaliated against because he refused to award patronage jobs and contracts, Metra attorney Joseph Gagliardo said.

Clifford later documented those allegations in the April 3 memo to the board, which was quickly followed by a letter from an attorney signaling his intention to sue if he didn't receive a contract extension, Gagliardo said.

Metra officials said they forwarded the allegations to the state inspector general's office, but its lawyers have refused to release the document to the Tribune following a Freedom of Information Act request.

It's unclear how many claims Clifford made, but Gagliardo told RTA officials that one involved a conversation with state lawmakers about minority hiring and the other concerned contracts for a $93 million railroad bridge on the South Side known as the Englewood Flyover.

The first allegation stemmed from a discussion Clifford had in March 2012 with Latino lawmakers in Springfield. The legislators questioned him about the percentage of Hispanics working at Metra and asked him to hire a more diverse staff, O'Halloran told the RTA board.

State Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, attended the meeting but denied he recommended people for Metra jobs. He told the Tribune that he routinely questions state agencies about minority hiring but said he never asked any political favors from Clifford. Arroyo said he has not been contacted by the inspector general's office.