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Kadner: Lawyers to investigate the lawyers

Patrick J. Fitzgerald left Patrick M. Collins acting as counsel for City Athens participate mock trial Socrates with federal judge

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, left, and Patrick M. Collins, acting as counsel for the City of Athens, participate in a mock trial of Socrates, with federal judge Richard A. Posner presiding at the Palmer House Hilton on Thursday, January 31, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 24, 2013 6:25AM



Metra should hire a lawyer to investigate why the lawyer who was going to investigate the commuter railroad backed out.

Patrick Collins, the former federal prosecutor who sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison, said he had to withdraw as the special counsel on the Metra scandal because of a “conflict of interest.”

The scandal in question, you may recall, was caused when former Metra chief executive Alex Clifford claimed he was forced to resign his job, taking a potential $700,000-plus buyout, because of political shenanigans.

Clifford received the lucrative severance package after Metra hired a lawyer to negotiate a deal with him that some critics claim was “hush money.” Clifford composed a memo, detailing attempts by political leaders to interfere with Metra decisions, including hiring and contracts.

Metra board chairman Brad O’Halloran said he was so concerned about the allegations in the memorandum that Metra hired a former federal prosecutor downstate to determine if there had been any illegalities. That lawyer, O’Halloran said, determined there were none.

O’Halloran said Metra also hired a respected former Cook County judge to mediate the labor dispute between Clifford and the Metra board, which is how that $700,000 severance deal came about.

And, by the way, the state’s inspector general is also looking into the allegations contained in Clifford’s memo.

I think that’s three lawyers and a former judge who have been involved in this thing, not counting Collins, who backed out before he was hired.

Also, the Regional Transportation Authority and the Legislature held hearings into the scandal.

As I stated in an earlier column, it appears to me that Clifford was fired because he ticked off some black congressman from Chicago, the Hispanic caucus in Springfield and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), the most powerful politician in Illinois.

That’s quite a trifecta.

On top of that, Clifford apparently got all huffy when O’Halloran, the newly elected board chairman, apparently questioned the competence of two Metra executives.

And then O’Halloran allegedly asked Clifford to patch things up with Madigan so the speaker wouldn’t retaliate against Metra and possibly cut its funding. Clifford refused, of course.

Since the federal government and the Legislature are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in Metra funding, I can understand why Metra board members might have wanted to dump Clifford, although he claims it was all about his attempt to keep patronage out of Metra.

As soon as Collins name was mentioned as a potential special investigator into the Metra thing, I wondered who was going to be watching him.

That’s the point we’re at in Illinois politics, isn’t it? We don’t trust anyone.

Everybody knows somebody who is trying to get something from the government.

So every state and city agency needs an inspector general, in addition to the on-staff lawyers hired to do the normal stuff while looking the other way at the illegal political activities of our elected leaders.

I could mention that some of those elected leaders are lawyers as well (Rod Blagojevich was one), but they’re not being paid as such.

In other words, if you’re a lawyer elected to public office, no one really expects you to act like a lawyer any more and blow the whistle on fraud, conspiracy and corruption.

I don’t know how much tax money has been spent already on lawyers in connection with this Metra scandal, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

It’s the cost of doing the peoples’ business in this state.

Two former governors were sent to prison for official corruption, and the expense of bringing them to justice (federal judges, prosecutors, jurors, U.S. marshals and eventually prison costs) was considered worthwhile.

The Metra CEO before Clifford, for those who may have forgotten, committed suicide by stepping in front of a train as he was about to be fired in another scandal for improperly taking nearly $500,000 in vacation pay.

Clifford was brought in to clean up Metra’s image and restore the agency’s reputation. Well, this isn’t the first time an effort at reform has failed.

Collins, for those who have forgotten, was named to head a special reform commission on ethics by Quinn. Most of its recommendations were ignored after Collins and his group spent a lot of time holding hearings.

Nobody in power wants anything to do with reform in this state.

There comes a point where you have to stop and ponder what this stuff is really all about.

Why did Clifford get $700,000? O’Halloran claims because he threatened to file a lawsuit that would have cost Metra millions of dollars to fight.

If Clifford could offer nothing more than has been revealed in public so far, I find that hard to believe.

The suspicion is that there is something more, something Metra board members want to keep quiet, that makes people wonder if Clifford was paid to keep his mouth shut.

By bringing in Collins, O’Halloran hoped to silence such speculation. Hey, if you’re willing to have a tough former prosecutor come in and investigate, you must not have anything to hide.

That’s what Metra was hoping to accomplish with Collins’ hiring, and, for a day or two, it looked pretty good.

But who got to Collins? Who got to the law firm he works for? What sort of political deals were made or were on the table in the future?

Shouldn’t we have some more investigations to get to the bottom of all this?

In Illinois, the speculation never stops because the corrupt never sleep.

No investigation will ever convince the public that Metra’s CEO ought to be given $700,000 to keep his mouth shut and go away.

That was the Metra board’s mistake. But it’s the taxpayers who keep paying for it.



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