Shaw: Political influence deeply ingrained at Metra
By Andy Shaw Better Government Association August 6, 2013 7:30PM
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association.
Updated: September 8, 2013 6:25AM
Which moves faster — a Metra train filled with commuters, or a Metra scandal filled with resignations, revelations and investigations?
Let’s call it a tie.
And then move on down the line to shed more light on another Metra story you may have seen in the Chicago Sun-Times last Sunday.
This one features Alex Wiggins — one of the two people who are temporarily running Metra — and how he quickly learned the “Chicago Way” after coming here from far away, the West Coast, where he held several administrative jobs.
Wiggins was hired in 2012 as one of Metra’s deputy executive directors, reporting directly to the chief executive.
And this summer, barely a year later, he donated $1,000 to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s campaign fund.
The CEO at the time was Alex Clifford. And the donation came just as Clifford was being forced out of his job by the Metra Board, which automatically put Wiggins in contention for the top spot, and not just temporarily.
Preckwinkle doesn’t appoint Metra’s CEO, but her supporters on the Metra Board do. They include a board member who resigned on Friday — Larry Huggins, a politically hyperactive fellow who’s a central figure in the ongoing scandal over political interference at Metra.
Huggins earlier had invited Wiggins to attend a fundraiser he was hosting for Preckwinkle. Wiggins complied and later contributed a grand to Preckwinkle’s fund.
Ethics 101 suggests that Huggins shouldn’t have asked Wiggins to attend the Preckwinkle fundraiser, and she shouldn’t have accepted his cash contribution.
Why? Because Wiggins’ job security and possible promotion to CEO could have depended, in part, on Huggins, so there’s implicit pressure to attend the event and contribute.
And Preckwinkle’s donors include Metra Board members who control Wiggins’ fate, so she’s tacitly encouraging a “pay to play” scenario by accepting Wiggins’ contribution.
As for Wiggins, he shouldn’t be donating because, as a Metra executive, it looks like he’s using campaign cash to curry favor, when his job ought to be as apolitical as possible.
This scenario involving Wiggins reflects the toxic nature of the politics that pollutes Illinois government at all levels, especially at Metra, which has reeked of excessive patronage and cronyism for many years — long before Clifford’s explosive allegations about staffing pressure from House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and other state lawmakers who control Metra’s budget.
Clifford thought he was being recruited to clean up the major mess created by his predecessor, Phil Pagano, the longtime CEO who stepped in front of a speeding train in 2010 while under investigation for embezzling nearly $500,000 in Metra funds.
But Clifford obviously misread the tea leaves and crossed the wrong people, including Huggins and Metra Board chairman Brad O’Halloran. After threatening a lawsuit over being pressured to make decisions based on politics, Clifford was eased out with a “golden parachute” that could be worth more than $700,000 and includes a gag order aimed at keeping him quiet about the political meddling by board members and outside pols.
So here’s the question for Wiggins: Was he trying to score points with Preckwinkle and Huggins by donating the money?
He says no way, he simply admires Preckwinkle, but this is all about questionable judgment and inopportune timing.
With Metra immersed in a major scandal, why would Wiggins, Huggins and Preckwinkle do anything that raises additional concerns about politics trumping professionalism?
Metra has a simple mission: Get people safely and efficiently to and from work and play.
Wiggins, ironically, complains that all the attention on the Clifford controversy undermines Metra’s mission.
But we’d suggest his political activity, and those of his enablers, is much more corrosive.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.