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Brown: No heroes or whistleblowers in Metra mess — but plenty of hooey

Updated: August 19, 2013 4:02PM



Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran told RTA officials Wednesday he and his fellow board members “knew we were gonna catch hell” for granting a $718,000 severance agreement to ousted CEO Alex Clifford.

I don’t think they had a clue just how hot hell could get.

The heat generated by the overly generous payout — and by the subsequent revelation that it followed Clifford accusing O’Halloran of pressuring him to accede to the patronage demands of House Speaker Mike Madigan — was practically shimmering off the RTA board room Wednesday despite air conditioning that could have kept ice cream from melting.

Clifford, taking the hot seat to answer questions for the first time since his severance deal was questioned, portrayed himself as the aggrieved party forced to walk off into the sunset with that $718,000 because he’d been “railroaded” by O’Halloran and Metra board member Larry Huggins.

If you’ve got the impression at any point that Clifford is the hero of this sorry business, though, think again. There are no heroes in this story as far as I can see.

As made clear by Clifford’s confidential April 3 memo to the board, plus an earlier email released following the RTA hearing, his chief interest at all times was to negotiate a contract extension for himself.

If anything, he is a nimble bureaucrat with a good working knowledge of how to squirrel away a few chips to play when he finds himself in trouble.

Clifford definitely deserves credit for standing up to Madigan and to Rep. Luis Arroyo by ignoring their patronage requests. That showed both good ethical instinct and some gumption, considering how most public officials operate in fear of making Madigan angry.

But Clifford was only too happy to forget about any attempted abuses — and the alleged indiscretions of his board members to back their play — if it meant he and the board could “continue to work together to overcome the challenges ahead,” presumably at a higher salary.

O’Halloran, for his part, again flat-out denied the most damning allegation by Clifford — that the Metra chairman deflected a request to talk about renewing his contract by complaining he first “needed to arrange a meeting with Speaker Madigan to assess ‘what damage I have done’ to Metra and its future funding.”

A visibly agitated O’Halloran called Clifford’s allegations a “whole lot of hooey,” but it still smells from here as if there’s enough hooey to go around.

For one thing, there’s no doubt that part of what happened here was a power play by the new board chairman trying to exert his influence over an agency that in the past offered plenty of patronage opportunities — both the old-fashioned and pinstripe variety.

Only veteran RTA Board member Donald Totten, who until seeing him Wednesday would have stumped me in a “dead or alive” quiz, had the nerve to question O’Halloran about how he came to join the Metra board. But O’Halloran wriggled off the hook when Totten couldn’t quite bring himself to ask the real question: “Who’s your clout?”

O’Halloran insisted he and Clifford never even discussed Madigan’s patronage request, which occurred prior to him joining the board, and no evidence was produced at the hearing to resolve the question one way or another.

O’Halloran went so far as to try to recast himself as the hero in this ongoing drama instead of the villain portrayed by Clifford.

“I’m the whistleblower,” O’Halloran said, basing his assertion on his decision to forward to the state inspector general a March 9 email from Clifford to another board member raising the specter that he was being punished because he “did not engage in an illegal request.” That was a reference to the alleged patronage demands.

Clifford never took his concerns to the inspector general, O’Halloran noted, which Clifford explained by saying he didn’t actually think the requests were illegal as long he didn’t comply. Of course, that didn’t stop him from throwing around the word.

All that really proves to me is that O’Halloran is a fast learner about the importance of covering one’s backside.

O’Halloran also ticked off a long laundry list of Clifford’s alleged shortcomings on the job in an effort to discredit him, but that only served to highlight the folly of paying Clifford to go away instead of firing him.

Several RTA board members noted the inconsistency, while Madigan son-in-law Jordan Matyas, the RTA’s $130,000 a year chief of staff, watched from the sidelines.

We probably should thank the Metra board members for overpaying Clifford. All this heat should keep them on their toes.



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