U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush defended his role in a controversial South Side rail project Tuesday, saying racially biased reporting unfairly characterized his recommendation that Metra pay $50,000 to a little-known Washington, D.C., group to monitor minority participation.
His comments came after several key players who negotiated to increase the number of black businesses involved in the Englewood Flyover project told the Tribune last week that they were unaware of the Washington organization's suggested role — or the attempt to get it money — before Metra's ex-CEO alleged he was improperly pressured to approve the no-bid proposal.
Rush said he proposed that the National Black Chamber of Commerce monitor the project because Metra officials asked him for a recommendation after the main contractor signed an agreement last summer with community activists to provide more subcontracting opportunities for African-Americans. The congressman said he could not recall who specifically from the rail agency sought his advice.
"It might have been staff. It might have been a board member," he said.
The Chicago Democrat said he suggested the chamber because it had a strong reputation and he wanted to bring more jobs to impoverished South Side communities.
"Throughout my life, I have been a fighter for the fair and equitable treatment of everyone, particularly the poor and marginalized and especially the African-American community," Rush said.
But the Tribune reported that there were hints of a broader relationship between Rush and the National Black Chamber of Commerce before the negotiations ended. Two weeks before the nonbinding agreement with community activists was signed, the chamber announced a "partnership" with the congressman to ensure minority participation in "every major infrastructure project within the greater Chicago region."
Though the announcement remained on the chamber's website as of Tuesday night, Rush accused the Tribune of lying about the partnership.
"I never had a partnership," he said. "I have a working relationship."
Rush's recommendation remained hidden in the background of the massive flyover project until former Metra CEO Alex Clifford complained at a recent public hearing into his $718,000 no-tell severance package that he was pressured to send the chamber a check. The agency offered Clifford the buyout package after he threatened to file a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging several patronage demands.
Metra officials have denied Clifford's claims and suggested he made the accusations only after learning that his contract might not be renewed.
Rush contends Clifford also misled the public about his actions.
"At no time did I persuade, pressure, push, urge or steer Clifford or any other Metra official to hire anyone, including the Black National Chamber of Commerce," he said.
Still, Clifford's allegations have stoked a scandal that has led to four Metra board resignations and state ethics investigations. With the resignations, the agency no longer has the minimum number of board members needed to hire a new executive director. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, asked the Federal Railroad Administration to initiate special oversight of Metra to ensure that the nation's second-largest commuter rail system operates "safely and efficiently while its leadership issues are resolved." Representatives for Metra and the federal rail administration said the agencies will continue to work together during the transition.
"This volatile situation must not interfere with the most important task at hand — ensuring Metra is the safest commuter rail operation in the country," Durbin wrote in a letter.
Rush insisted during a news conference near the rail site that he, too, has had the public's best interests at heart. He also called a Tribune reporter "evil" and accused the newspaper of having a historic bias against the black community dating back to its coverage of the 1969 killings of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
The congressman accused the newspaper of inaccurately reporting that 25 percent of the project's original bid went to minority-owned firms and met the legal requirement. He insists the true percentage is closer to 3 percent. His number, however, does not factor in women-owned firms, which are designated as disadvantaged business enterprises under federal law and were a significant part of the bid.
Rush also objected to the Tribune's assertion that neither Metra nor the congressman's office had been monitoring the agreement since Clifford refused to cut the $50,000 check. Both Metra and Rush's spokesman said last week that they weren't scrutinizing the agreement.
On Tuesday, Rush said more than $4 million had gone to black-owned firms since the agreement was signed. Metra said there has been $3.76 million in subcontracts awarded to black-owned firms, which equals about 4 percent of the entire $93 million project and 15 percent of the total minority contracts.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun