The firestorm over a secret payout deal negotiated for ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford took a new turn Thursday, as a Metra lawyer revealed that Clifford claimed he had been the victim of political pressure from House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Appearing before angry legislators who demanded to know why Clifford had been given an exit package which could be worth up to $718,000, Metra lawyer Joseph Gagliardo said Clifford had made clear that he would claim a variety of political pressures had led to his ouster. In one instance, he said, Clifford accused Madigan of pressuring him to give a friend a raise.
"Elected officials do not lose their first amendment right to talk to people," Gagliardo said. "It is not inappropriate for an elected official to inquire about a wage increase for somebody."
In a statement released Thursday, Madigan denied pressuring Clifford to give his friend the raise.
Still, members of the House Mass Transit Committee made clear that they thought the severance deal stunk to high heaven, especially in an agency which promised total transparency when Clifford’s successor, Phil Pagano, killed himself after allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper vacation payments.
"The taxpayers of this state are being taken advantage of," said Woodstock Democrat Jack Franks, a longtime Metra critic. "I really don’t believe that taxpayers should subsidize the incompetence of government."
Gagliardo told the committee he had advised the board to settle with Clifford, because the embittered Metra chief would most certainly have sued the agency in a costly legal fight which would have easily topped a million dollars. And he insisted it was naïve to think that Clifford would simply have gone away if his contract had been allowed to lapse.
"That was not going to happen," he said. "That was not in the cards."
"This was going to end up being a full blown trial," the attorney warned the lawmakers, an event which he said would have been "disruptive to the operations of Metra."
Still, furious lawmakers demanded to know why the deal had been shrouded in secrecy, a confidentiality agreement so airtight that Clifford had refused to appear at the same hearing.
"There’s a lot of people running around saying this is hush money," said Rep. Al Riley, a Democrat from Hazel Crest.
Gagliardo insisted Clifford could have appeared and that no one advised him not to do so.
"We have not muzzled him," Gagliardo insisted.
Even as the attorney and Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran insisted they were being open with the committee, they refused to tender a copy of an April 3 memo, where Clifford outlined the political pressures he said he had endured. Gagliardo said the memo mentioned only three other items: perceived pressure from State Rep Luis Arroyo to hire someone the Hispanic Caucus recommended for a top Metra post; still more political arm twisting from African American legislators, angry over the lack of minority hiring on a multi-million dollar bridge in the Englewood neighborhood; and what Clifford insisted was meddling in his affairs by the Metra board.
"No one got hired, no one got a raise, no friends got contracts," he said. "But that’s what happened."
Outside the hearing, Franks expressed outrage that only one member of the Metra board had accepted the invitation to attend. He promised an attempt to roll back the Clifford deal, and said all of the board members who failed to appear should be fired.
"If they have that much disdain for the taxpayers and their customers, and have so little accountability, then they have no reason for being in the public trust," he said. "So I’m going to call for all of their resignations."