Former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins will not be conducting an independent probe of the ousted Metra CEO's allegations of patronage attempts and other improprieties at the agency, officials announced this morning.
Late Sunday, Perkins Coie, Collins' law firm, told Metra it had a "potential conflict" and that Collins, a partner, could not take on the case, according to a statement by Metra.
Metra's board of directors was to have met this morning to discuss and potentially approve Collins' hiring to conduct an investigation into the allegations raised by former Metra CEO Alex Clifford in an April 3 memo and at a July 17 Regional Transportation Authority meeting.
The statement did not specify what the conflict was.
In an e-mail to Metra from Collins quoted in the statement, Collins said that an "initial conflict check" last week came back clear, but that subsequently, Perkins Coie was "made aware of additional conflict issues."
Collins thanked Metra for considering him and said he was honored by the agency's request.
Clifford accused Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran and board member Larry Huggins of interfering with his running of the agency in hiring and awarding contracts and accused House Speaker Michael Madigan of patronage allegations, among other charges.
Clifford and Metra agreed on a $718,000 severance package from the rail agency June 21, which set off a firestorm of controversy.
Metra and Perkins Coie had agreed last week on the scope of the investigation and had capped Collins' fee at $150,000. He was to have reported his findings to Metra's board within 90 days.
O'Halloran said in the statement that he was "personally disappointed" that Collins could not participate. He said he was committed to interviewing other attorneys "with outstanding reputations and investigative skills" and again ask Metra's board for approval.
As a prosecutor, Collins had helped send former Metra board member Donald Udstuen to prison in 2006 on federal tax fraud charges stemming from an agency procurement scandal. Udsten later cooperated with Collins’ prosecution of Gov. George Ryan, as he secretly recorded his old friend and then later testified for the government at Ryan's corruption trial.
Clifford's allegations against Madigan and another lawmaker and against the two board members were leveled in the now-infamous April 3 memo to Metra's board. The allegations prompted Metra to negotiate a severance deal paying him nearly three times his annual salary, a settlement that critics have called "hush money."
Collins' investigation would have been the second inquiry performed by a former federal prosecutor in the last three months. Metra already has paid former central Illinois U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton $52,400 to look into Clifford's patronage allegations, meaning the total price for Clifford's ouster could cost more than $1 million.
The agency would not release Heaton's findings and calls his work "on-going" but has said he found no evidence of wrongdoing. Heaton declined comment Friday when reached at his Springfield office.
Clifford resigned June 21 after agreeing to one of the largest taxpayer-funded severance packages in Illinois history. The deal came three months after Clifford accused board members of retaliating against him because he did not capitulate to patronage demands.
O'Halloran repeatedly has called the accusations meritless and has suggested Clifford only levied the complaints once he learned his contract renewal was unlikely.
The chairman also has forwarded the allegations to the state executive inspector general, who is investigating the claims alongside his counterpart in the General Assembly. The Regional Transportation Authority and the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee also have held hearings into the matter.
In his memo, Clifford blamed his downfall on his refusal to acquiesce to Madigan's request to give a pay raise to one of the speaker's political supporters.
The speaker twice asked that Patrick Ward, a longtime Madigan foot soldier, be given a raise on his $57,000-a-year salary, Clifford said. The speaker also asked that another employee be promoted from a customer service post to train conductor, he said.
Madigan has confirmed he made an inquiry about Ward's salary in March 2012 but said he withdrew it after Clifford raised concerns.
On Friday, Madigan said he is encouraging an investigation of his efforts to secure a raise for Ward.
Madigan said he is "open to cooperating" with the legislative inspector general and the legislative ethics commission in a letter to them released to the media.
"I am confident that my actions were not inappropriate or violative of any applicable law or ethical rule," Madigan wrote.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun