By Richard Wronski and Stacy St. Clair
8:10 AM EDT, July 16, 2013
Ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford has agreed to face questions about his controversial departure, a move that could allow him to explain allegations that his downfall was directly connected to his refusal to grant House Speaker Michael Madigan's patronage requests.
Clifford confirmed he will appear Wednesday before the Regional Transportation Authority, which has oversight powers over the commuter rail system's finances. The RTA board endured harsh criticism last week for its soft questioning of Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran and its failure to invite Clifford to a special hearing on his $718,000 parting deal.
As tension over Madigan's role in the controversy continued to boil Monday, Jordan Matyas, the RTA's chief of staff (and Madigan's son-in-law), recused himself from the inquiry.
Clifford's appearance would mark his first public comments on his noisy exit since the Metra board approved his severance package in June. He declined to attend a legislative hearing on the matter last week, citing a confidentiality clause in his deal.
Metra attorneys have insisted for weeks that Clifford could not speak about the events leading to the generous exit package without violating the terms of his settlement. The agency appeared to partially waive that restriction Monday, agreeing to allow Clifford to answer questions about an eight-page memorandum he wrote outlining the patronage demands he alleged during his tenure.
Clifford's attorney Michael Shakman told the Tribune Monday that an agreement was reached to allow Clifford to answer questions about the memo, which launched the controversial settlement negotiations between Metra and its embattled CEO. However, it's unlikely he will discuss the severance package, which critics have called "hush money."
"I'm sure some of the questions will fall under the scope of the April 3 memo. Beyond that that will require some decision-making (at the meeting)" Shakman said.
Any public inquiry, however, will inevitably collide with the speaker's power structure.
Matyas sent a memo to the RTA board Monday saying he was recusing himself from the inquiry. The speaker's connection to Clifford's patronage claims was not mentioned during a two-hour RTA hearing on the severance package last week.
Madigan's spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.
At least one board member, however, said he remained uncomfortable with Matyas' position at the agency and will ask him whether he has been asked to do anything improper regarding RTA contracts or hiring.
"That question has to be posed," said RTA board member Donald Totten, a former longtime state legislator from Schaumburg.
Totten also called for the removal of O'Halloran and board member Larry Huggins, both of whom were accused by Clifford of promoting patronage hires. O'Halloran and Huggins have denied the allegations.
"It was not performance that got Clifford axed, it was politics," Totten said. "It was not acquiescing to some of those demands."
The Illinois House Mass Transit Committee also has investigative powers over Metra, but it's unclear whether it will continue to pursue the matter after successfully pushing to have Clifford's memorandum released to the public last week.
Several committee members want Clifford to appear before them to answer questions about the memo, but any such hearing would require the speaker's blessing.
The speaker's daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, also could investigate the claims. She continues to sidestep questions about whether her office should be investigating Clifford's allegations and the resulting severance package.
"Given all the names and connections involved, there's an even greater need for a public investigation," said Rep. Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, the leading Republican on the Mass Transit Committee. "The taxpayers deserve a full accounting of what happened."
On Monday, Tryon sent a letter to Mass Transit Committee Chairwoman Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, and asked her to again invite Clifford before the committee. If Clifford refused a second time, Tryon asked that the committee subpoena him to compel his testimony — a rarely exercised power that would need the speaker's approval.
Mell said she will make a decision about future hearings after Clifford's appearance before the RTA board. She said she has not spoken to Madigan since the Metra memo's release, but he approved the committee's initial hearing knowing his name would be brought up so she expects he would allow others.
Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, supports additional legislative hearings because he has little faith that the RTA board will provide the necessary oversight.
"For the life of me, I don't know what the RTA does," he said. "How would they know how to provide oversight? They never, ever look into anything."
Metra has forwarded Clifford's patronage claims to the state executive inspector general's office, though the status of that inquiry is unknown. The office operates largely in secret and issues public reports only if it finds that specific violations have occurred.
Lisa Madigan said Monday that the public needs to wait for the inspector general to finish his work before asking whether her office should be looking into the matter.
"As I've said, I am hopeful that the inspector general will get all the information that he needs to do a thorough investigation, and if there are any possible illegalities he will refer it to the proper law enforcement agency," she said.
Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed.
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