CHICAGO (AP) — Powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan said Thursday he asked senior staff at Metra to consider a pay raise for an associate who was employed at the commuter rail agency, but withdrew the recommendation after Metra’s then-CEO expressed discomfort over it.
Madigan addressed the matter in a one-page statement he prepared for a House committee investigating a costly severance deal for former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, who resigned last month. Clifford has alleged he was pushed out for resisting political pressure in decisions about hiring and contracts.
The link to Madigan, one of Illinois’ most powerful politicians, was an unexpected turn in hearings that are unearthing details of Clifford’s eye-popping severance package, under which he could reap up to $718,000.
In Thursday’s statement, Madigan said that in March 2012, he weighed in on a proposed salary increase for Patrick Ward, who worked as a labor relations specialist at Metra. Madigan said he has worked with Ward for more than 15 years on “a variety of projects,” but did not go into detail on their relationship.
“Mr. Ward informed my office that in spite of being asked to assume expanded tasks with additional responsibilities in his position, his $57,000 salary had not increased in more than three years,” Madigan wrote. “Given the information presented to my office, we forwarded a recommendation to Metra senior staff that Mr. Ward be considered for a salary adjustment.”
He said his office’s recommendation for a salary increase was meant to supplement an endorsement from Ward’s supervisor.
The Democrat said he withdrew his endorsement after learning that Clifford had concerns about it. Clifford ultimately rejected the recommendation, and Ward later quit, Madigan said.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker issued the statement for members of the House Mass Transit Committee after learning the matter would come up Thursday at their hearing into the former Metra CEO’s severance deal.
“All Mr. Madigan did was endorse a recommendation made by the employee’s supervisor,” Brown said. “… It’s the exact opposite of any kind of impropriety.”
Metra attorney Joseph Gagliardo told the panel members Madigan request was not political.
“Elected officials don’t lose their First Amendment rights to talk to people,” he said. “Speaker Madigan inquired about a raise for an employee. It’s not inappropriate for an elected official to inquire about a wage increase for somebody. It’s not based on politics”
Metra Board member Jack Schaffer, who voted against Clifford’s severance package, told the committee that in his view, the Clifford severance deal cost $750,000, “$250,000 for exit, $500,000 for hush.'”
Asked by State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) what the Metra board wanted Clifford to “shut up about,” Schaffer urged Metra officials to “give (Clifford) clearance and let him come in” and talk freely to the committee or submit to the committee a April 2013 memo he gave board members outlining alleged pressure.
“I don’t know why they won’t release this document,” Schaffer told the committee. “It’s not some nuclear bomb.”
Gagliardo said Clifford was free to talk to the committee, but he just couldn’t discuss certain things or share documents that might subject the Metra Board “to liability.”
The large severance package for Clifford angered state lawmakers who decried the blow to taxpayers.
Describing their falling out, Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran said Clifford bristled at efforts by the agency’s board of directors to assert greater oversight of major infrastructure projects and hiring decisions, and that there were major areas of disagreement with Clifford on the agency’s direction and the pace of improvements.
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