After pressuring a Metra contractor to hire more African-American companies for a crucial South Side rail project, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush recommended that the commuter rail agency pay $50,000 to a little-known Washington, D.C., group to monitor minority participation.

Yet several key players who negotiated to increase the number of black businesses involved in the Englewood Flyover project told the Tribune this week that they were unaware of the Washington organization's suggested role — or the attempt to get them money — before Metra's ex-CEO alleged he was improperly pressured to approve the no-bid proposal.

"I'd never heard of the D.C. group prior to now," said Michael Stuttley, a former Cook County judge who along with two other Rush allies formed an ad hoc committee that helped broker a nonbinding jobs agreement in July 2012.

But there were hints of a broader relationship between Rush and the National Black Chamber of Commerce before those negotiations ended. Two weeks before the agreement was signed, the chamber announced a partnership with the congressman to ensure minority participation in "every major infrastructure project within the greater Chicago region."

That partnership never materialized, and neither did the chamber's monitoring role on the rail project. After Metra officials refused to pay the $50,000 fee, the proposed side deal for the group died and the efforts to get more work for black-owned businesses faded.

The curious maneuverings remained hidden in the background of the massive flyover project until Metra CEO Alex Clifford complained at a recent public hearing into the $718,000, no-tell severance package he received after threatening a whistle-blower lawsuit against Metra that he was pressured to send the chamber a check.

Clifford's allegations stoked a scandal that has led to three Metra board resignations and state ethics investigations centered on his attention-grabbing claims that his job was threatened because he refused Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan requests to award a pay raise to a Madigan political supporter. Madigan has acknowledged seeking the favor for his foot soldier, though both he and top Metra board members reject Clifford's claims that there was any political pressure.

The circumstances surrounding Rush's involvement in the previously unknown $50,000 monitoring deal have been less clear.

In a statement last week and a brief interview with the Tribune, the congressman acknowledged he recommended that the National Black Chamber of Commerce in Washington be hired.

Rush spokeswoman Debra Johnson initially denied that the congressman asked for the chamber to receive any money. In a subsequent interview, she told the Tribune that Metra had agreed to pay for a liaison to work with black contractors.

But Tribune interviews with participants and a review of documents related to the project — including the controversial memorandum of understanding aimed at boosting minority contracts — conflict with Rush's version of events. All three members of an ad hoc committee formed to boost minority participation on the project said they never agreed that the group should be the monitor and did not suggest that Metra fund it.

Henry English, who runs a South Side community organization called the Black United Fund of Illinois, said the group never discussed who should monitor the agreement, nor did the group lay out any ground rules or recommendations for how the work should be done.

"That was the only thing I was committed to — to work through some kind of agreement," English said. "Once we finished that, we felt our role was through."

Approached after a public event last week and asked whether he or his staff ever told Metra to send a $50,000 check to the National Black Chamber of Commerce, Rush said "it was only a recommendation."

Asked about Clifford's claim that he was politically pressured to cut a check to the group, Rush said, "He got it wrong. It was totally harmonious."

The congressman said he was simply trying get more project money for black contractors and he wanted to use the National Black Chamber of Commerce because it is well-respected.

"Because they are pre-eminent in the world at this kind of monitoring," he said. "They were not locally based, and it was only a recommendation."

The $141 million bridge project, funded by federal stimulus money, was designed to untangle the country's worst freight and commuter railroad bottleneck, located in the impoverished Englewood neighborhood.

But it was slowed by a vociferous and well-publicized campaign launched by Rush and other African-American public officials and community leaders angered that the project — while meeting federal requirements for giving minorities a share of the government contracts — would bring few if any jobs to blacks living there.

Their protests were supported by acting Metra Chairman Larry Huggins, the owner of a prominent construction company that has won minority contracts on big projects in the city and Cook County.