Even as a former federal prosecutor withdrew from a potential job investigating the ongoing troubles at Metra, the noise at the agency grew louder Monday as Metra board member Jack Schaffer called for the ouster of chairman Brad O’Halloran, and O’Halloran fired back that Schaffer had his own issues in the agency’s darkest period.
Schaffer declared that hiring a new investigator was effectively a waste of time and money.
"I don’t believe any investigation paid for by the Metra board is going to be viewed as anything but a whitewash," he said, noting the agency is already being investigated by the Executive Inspector General, the Legislative Ethics Commission, the RTA, and the House Mass Transit Committee, as well as a former U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, who was hired for more than $50,000.
"And we have yet to see his report!" Schaffer said. "Why in the world would we hire another investigator, until we see the report from the first investigator?"
Metra had scheduled a meeting to hire former prosecutor Patrick Collins to investigate "hiring and contract policies" raised in the recent ouster of Executive Director Alex Clifford, and the payment of a severance package which could top $700,000. That meeting was canceled at the last minute as Collins withdrew, citing unspecified conflict issues.
A board member since 2006, Schaffer, who represents McHenry County, said he believed Clifford was forced out of his job because he was "too honest." And he accused O’Halloran of doing the bidding of county board members and chairmen who wanted greater political influence in the agency.
"I think the first thing that has to happen, is O’Halloran has to go," he said.
But the Metra chairman suggested that he found Schaffer’s comments ironic.
"I’m not going to get into a name-calling contest, but Jack has a short memory," O’Halloran responded. "Jack was the treasurer when his friend Phil Pagano was looting the place." ... "For him to start wearing the white hat, is kind of amazing to me."
Pagano, the former Metra Executive Director, committed suicide in the midst of an investigation of his improper conversion of vacation time. On the day of his death, he was about to be fired by the Metra board. (Schaffer said in an interview that he barely knew Pagano outside of meetings.)
O’Halloran said he had called for the latest investigation of the agency and the hiring of Collins, not only to examine Clifford’s allegations of political meddling in Springfield, but also the agency’s overall hiring and promotion practices.
"We need to get someone on it right now,' he said. "They can investigate me, the board, anyone they want to."
The Metra chairman said once he submits a new name, and if the board approves that person, he would like to see a report back within 90 days.
But Schaffer painted a picture of Clifford as a victim of the entire affair. He voted no on the severance package, the only board member to do so.
"Frankly, I believe firmly and fervently that Alex Clifford would be serving in the next three years of his contract with a big pay raise if he had looked the other way and done the political things he was asked to do," Schaffer said. "I think there’s some people on the board that wanted Alex just to go away quietly, and 'we’ll go back to business as usual.'"
He noted that Clifford was specifically hired to clean up the mess left when Pagano killed himself.
"The irony of the thing is, three years ago the Metra board met the day Pagano killed himself to fire him, because he had been dishonest and he had broken the law," Schaffer said. "And here we are in June, meeting to fire some guy because he refused to be dishonest, and wouldn’t break the law."
O’Halloran insists he came into the Chairman’s job with no agenda involving Clifford. He says he already had concerns about operations of the agency. But that after he became chairman, he began hearing complaints about Clifford, from stakeholder groups, unions, passenger service agents, and senior management.
"It’s unfortunate the way the whole thing unfolded," he said. "To me it was a business decision and a way to move the agency forward."
In the end, he said, the Clifford payout came down to two bad choices: be sued, or pay a big severance, a conundrum he called "bad decision A, or bad decision B."