Where to Begin on Metra Mess -- And Where Will It End?

Well, the Metra controversy and House Speaker Michael Madigan's role in it might well have helped his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, finally conclude she cannot run for governor.

This Metra mess is wrong on so many different levels, it's hard to know where it will end or where to begin.

We'll start with this: After the previous Executive Director Phil Pagano stepped in front of a train amid an investigation into whether he defrauded the agency of $475,000, we'd hoped that Metra's board of directors had learned some difficult lessons.

It appears, though, that Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran and most of the rest of the board of directors didn't learn much at all from that tragedy.

The 8-page memo Metra finally released last week paints a picture of directors repeatedly overstepping their boundaries, kowtowing to politicians and practicing favoritism with those politicians.

And when the next Metra CEO Alex Clifford called them on it all with this memo copied to his lawyers, as far as we know now, they didn't come clean and or try to clean up their acts. Instead, they proceeded to commit to spending perhaps as much as $718,000 of our taxpayer money to keep Clifford quiet and make him go away.

And lest anyone continue to portray Clifford as an innocent victim or whistleblower here, let's all remind ourselves that he was more than willing to take that exorbitant sum and walk away. He still is taking great care to try to ensure he isn't violating the terms of his confidentiality agreement so as not to jeopardize any of his walk-away money.

Just like with Watergate, will it be the attempted cover-up that ultimately costs Metra's key board members O'Halloran and vice chairman Larry Huggins and the rest of the directors who voted for Clifford's outrageous severance package? Only director and former state Sen. Jack Schaffer of McHenry voted "hell no" against the outrageous severance deal.

It took days of outcry and prodding by state legislators before the memo with the key details was released. Should we now start calling this one Metra Memogate?

And with the release of the memo Friday, we learn that Clifford is alleging political pressure to hire and disburse pay raises came from House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and state Rep. Luis Arroyo, both Chicago Democrats who have denied any wrongdoing.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told the Chicago Sun-Times that there is nothing here; no wrongdoing on his part because the Speaker did not gain any personal benefit from his actions. That may well be technically true. It may well also be true that it still constitutes an untoward act of pressure and an exercise of favoritism from the state's most powerful politician.

Madigan's office last week did release a statement acknowledging they put a request in to get a raise for Patrick Ward, a long-time Madigan political campaign worker and contributor, but said they later withdrew that request.

Clifford also alleges there was a Madigan request for a job for another unnamed person and that he was told by O'Halloran when he asked about his future employment that he would need to arrange a meeting with Madigan to determine "what damage I have done" to Metra and its future funding by not fulfilling Madigan's requests.

The fallout from this one cannot be measured fully yet.

It might already have altered the campaign plans of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the speaker's daughter, who most thought was readying a run for governor. She announced Monday night that she will instead seek re-election as attorney general, specifically citing her belief that the state would not be well served with a governor and speaker from the same family.

No one has accused Lisa Madigan of any wrongdoing whatsoever, but this episode only underscores the ongoing inherent conflicts of holding office when other close family members also hold politically powerful posts, even when one of those posts is not governor.

Despite what Lisa Madigan's spokeswoman has said over the weekend, the only way her office's lawyers could possibly investigate the Metra mess and citizens could have faith in an above-board outcome would be for that office to find wrongdoing on the part of her father, whom she refers to as "Speaker Madigan" in her announcement she will seek re-election. Any other result would have everyone second guessing. A run for governor only would have heightened the constant questions of conflict of interest. Then there's the fact that one of Mike Madigan's sons-in-law, Jordan Matyas, is chief of staff at the Regional Transportation Authority that also held a hearing about this Metra mess.

And can it be any richer that one of those asking the key questions about all of this and doing the prodding is state Rep. Deborah Mell, at the same time she is carrying on the Illinois nepotism tradition by applying to replace her father, Dick Mell, as Alderman of Chicago's 33rd Ward?

What a mess. And only in Illinois.

It's time for a complete investigation, with a special prosecutor if necessary, to thoroughly determine and conclude whether Speaker Madigan, Arroyo, Clifford, O'Halloran, the rest of the Metra board or anyone else did anything illegal or unethical.

It's time for the Metra board members who voted for this Clifford severance deal and for trying to keep it covered up from the taxpayers to pay the consequences. It's time they and future Metra board members be made to understand they work for us, not for their politician-patrons. It's time they understand they're spending our money.

It's time the citizen-taxpayers who are paying the bill for Metra Memogate and the subsequent investigation to demand the basic accountability and government transparency we all deserve.

This post reflects the views of Madeleine Doubek and Matt Dietrich of Reboot Illinois.

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