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Kadner: Metra scandal a $700,000 lesson

Former MetrCEO Alex Clifford testifies before Regional Transit Authority board Chicago Wednesday July 17 2013.  |  Scott Eisen~AP

Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford testifies before the Regional Transit Authority board in Chicago on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. | Scott Eisen~AP

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Updated: August 19, 2013 3:46PM



So here’s how I understand the Metra scandal that’s been making headlines.

Black congressmen and hundreds of black residents demanded more minority participation in a $90 million Metra project and Metra’s chief executive, Alex Clifford, told them to fly a kite.

Members of the Latino Caucus in the Legislature met with Clifford and asked him to appoint a Latino to an executive post at Metra, and he brushed them off.

And House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), the most powerful politician in Illinois, asked for a pay raise for a political supporter working for Metra, and Clifford again refused.

And when the chairman of the Metra board, Brad O’Hallaron, asked him to dismiss two employees for alleged incompetence, Clifford said personnel matters were none of O’Halloran’s business.

And then Clifford became outraged when he learned his contract was not going to be renewed, so he wrote an eight-page memo about all this stuff and threatened to file a lawsuit against Metra if he lost his job.

He backed off and decided to resign after receiving a severance package in excess of $700,000.

According to Clifford, he was just trying to do the right thing. The ethical thing.

For the sake of argument, I will assume that’s just what Clifford was doing when he decided to alienate lawmakers from the state and federal government representing the two largest minority groups.

He wasn’t concerned about the millions of dollars in funding that Metra receives or the billions of dollars worth of potential projects it would need to get financed in the future.

He was going by the book, and the book said he was in the right.

But the realities of politics are much different.

Let’s take a look at the Englewood Flyover project, that $90 million railroad bridge through the Chicago’s Englewood community, which is mostly black. Initially, only $112,000 for that project went to one black-owned business.

Clifford said the contractor that was hired met the federal requirement of having 25 percent of the work go to minority-owned subcontractors, but those subcontractors included women and minorities who were not black.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), at the time of the contract award, announced to the media that, “I’ll stop Metra in its tracks.” He and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis Jr. (D-7th) led hundreds of black people to a Metra meeting to protest the contract.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also got involved, saying, “I don’t want to shut it (the Flyover) down. But I want to join him (Rush) in putting pressure on those who are involved in it to move toward more diversity employment, more Illinois employment.”

It’s a pretty big deal when two black congressmen and a U.S. senator blast a government-funded agency in the news media. And their pressure led the Flyover contractor to give about $4 million in work to black-owned companies.

I’m not saying the politicians were right. But I think there are documented problems with well-intentioned, government-mandated, minority-hiring programs.

And Clifford apparently was correct when he said that the contractor hired by Metra had fulfilled all of its obligations under the law.

On Wednesday, during an Regional Transportation Authority hearing into the unfolding Metra scandal, Clifford said he was told to write a $50,000 check to the National Black Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., by a black Metra board member who was working with Rush to stem black opposition to the Englewood Flyover contract.

I called Rush’s office in Washington to find out if he had actually made such a request of Metra.

“The part Congressman Rush played in that, he simply requested that they contact the National Black Chamber of Commerce. The (Metra) contractor had indicated he was willing to expand the contract beyond (the $112,000), and the congressman recommended the National Black Chamber of Commerce as a resource for recruiting minority contractors for the project,” said Debra Johnson, communications director for Rush.

Rush never asked that a $50,000 check be made out to the chamber, Johnson said.

It’s instructive to see how confusion can occur when a congressman talks to a Metra board member and the board member communicates his wishes to Metra’s CEO.

As for Madigan, the campaign supporter he tried to help later left Metra and landed a better-paying job with the state. In other words, he was hired by a state agency with the blessings of Gov. Pat Quinn, who is supposed to be Mr. Ethics and a political enemy of Madigan.

I don’t think anyone would suggest that Quinn is dirty. But even Mr. Clean knows how to play politics.

Clifford also said at the RTA hearing that he didn’t think Madigan did anything illegal but characterized his conduct as “unethical” and said Madigan has a “moral character flaw.”

Clifford has been portrayed as something of a hero in all of this. He was brought in to improve Metra’s image following an embarrassing scandal involving the agency’s prior and longtime CEO.

Well, he certainly hasn’t done that. And he’s not exactly the poster boy for whistle-blowing.

He didn’t go public with his allegations of unethical conduct when the issues arose. He used his memo as a wedge to extract a financial benefit from taxpayers, threatening the Metra board with exposure if they didn’t pay up.

“Hush money” is what some people have called it.

This has become a classic case of reality meets ethical purity.

While good-government groups would like to keep patronage and petty politics out of government, it may be an impossible task.

Black and Latino leaders have responsibility, even an obligation, to represent their minority communities.

The CEOs and boards of government-funded agencies have to work with legislators who oversee their funding, but those lawmakers are always looking for favors in return.

All of us knew that this sort of thing happens all the time. Clifford gave us a case study in how it works.

The lesson wasn’t worth the $700,000 it cost us.



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