Critic dubs Metra’s $1.3M tab for Clifford exit ‘indefensible’

SHARE Critic dubs Metra’s $1.3M tab for Clifford exit ‘indefensible’

Metra’s total tab to bid adieu to former CEO Alex Clifford and deal with the fallout was $1.3 million — just over half of that for outside lawyers and crisis consulting, officials revealed Thursday.

One critic called the ultimate tab “indefensible,” but new Metra Board Chairman Martin Oberman said the suburban commuter rail agency has since taken steps to avoid a repeat of the messy episode.

The Metra board’s June 21, 2013 decision to pay Clifford up to $871,000 to resign with eight months left on his contract ignited a firestorm of criticism. The fine print showed the golden handshake included retroactive as well as future raises over as long as a 26-month period.

Afterwards, six board members resigned — including then-board chairman Brad O’Halloran; legislators held a hearing on the matter; the RTA audited the incident; two inspectors general launched probes and Gov. Pat Quinn cited the “scandal” in creating a special transit task force.

Among the hearing bombshells was a contention by Clifford that O’Halloran and another board member conspired to dump him because he would not “play ball” on contracts and patronage, as well as O’Halloran’s insistence that Metra would get off cheaper by approving the severance deal than facing a potential whistleblower suit by Clifford.

In the end, Clifford’s departure cost $652,363 in salary, accrued time off, medical insurance, relocation expenses and attorneys fees, officials said Thursday. The tab ultimately was less than the potential $871,000 because Clifford spent less than allotted on relocation fees and got a top spot with the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District this past spring, before the longest possible end date of the golden handshake.

Slightly more than half of the total tab — $662,494 — was spent on additional outside legal and crisis consulting bills. Of that amount, according to Metra documents released Thursday, $544,614 were approved by O’Halloran for advice concerning Clifford’s claims; for Metra’s participation in an inspector general probe, legislative and other hearings; and for crisis consulting by Culloton Strategies, which alone claimed a $41,434 piece of the pie.

Former Metra Board member Jack Schaffer — the lone vote against the deal — at one point called it part “hush” money.

State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) Thursday called the $1.3 million tab “indefensible” and said the money was used “to protect the board,” rather than for “good government.”

“I want to complement Chairman Oberman for his transparency and for instituting these changes,’’ said Franks. “But I still think we need a complete overhaul of our transit governance structure” — something recommended by the Quinn transit task force.

The genesis of the swelling tab actually dates back to 2010, following the suicide of scandal-plagued Metra executive director Phil Pagano, when the Metra Board decided to hire its own law firm rather than use in-house counsel for board legal services. The board later retained the firm of Johnston Greene, which guided O’Halloran and the board through much of the Clifford mess.

O’Halloran’s successor as chairman, Jack Partelow, later stopped board use of outside counsel, and current chairman Oberman has permanently banned the practice.

Other reforms include giving board members training on liability insurance — something an RTA audit found that board members should have investigated throughly to see if it would have covered any potential law suit costs. In addition, the board has created written CEO performance goals to be used in future evaluations; required that all job-related outside calls, including from politicans, be logged; and required hiring managers to certify that they did not hire candidates for political reasons.

Oberman said he called for an accounting of the final tab to help “put this chapter behind us.”

“Everybody knows what happened. It’s been reviewed and discussed and reported on,’’ Oberman said. “We’ve taken steps to make sure something like this never happens again.’’

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