CHICAGO (CBS) — RTA board members lashed out at their counterparts at Metra on Wednesday, calling a $718,000 severance package for former Metra CEO Alex Clifford a bad deal, in the wake of an audit that found the cost of firing Clifford could have been covered by insurance.
WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports Regional Transportation Authority board member William Coulson said former Metra chair Brad O’Halloran and former director Larry Huggins sparked a clash with Clifford over political hires at the agency.
“There was conduct here by Mr. O’Halloran and Mr. Huggins, particularly, which basically empowered Mr. Clifford, and created this cause of action … and basically the conduct was tortious,” he said.
Tortious is legal for wrong in a civil suit.
The RTA is putting the finishing touches on a sharply critical audit of Clifford’s severance deal. The audit found Metra could have gotten out of its contract with Clifford for a fraction of the potential $718,000 cost of the deal, due to an insurance policy that covers whistleblower lawsuits of the type Clifford threatened.
Clifford has said he was forced out because he resisted political patronage requests from House Speaker Michael Madigan and others, including O’Halloran and Huggins.
Madigan, O’Halloran and Huggins have denied any wrongdoing, though Madigan acknowledged asking Clifford about a raise for a political ally who worked at Metra. The speaker said he withdrew the request when Clifford told him it would be improper.
RTA auditor Michael Zumach said Clifford had a valid grievance against the board after sending a memo to the Metra board, detailing some of the patronage allegations.
“Generally, his actions would have fallen under the Whistleblower Act,” he said.
RTA board member J.D. Ross asked if there’s anything more sinister going on at Metra.
Zumach said he’s done what he can without subpoena power. Two state inspectors general are investigating Clifford’s allegations.
Metra officials have portrayed the situation involving Clifford’s ouster as a choice between the severance agreement and the threatened lawsuit, which could have cost $3 million to defend.
The RTA’s draft audit said an insurance policy Metra bought this year would have provided a third alternative, but was not considered in a muddle of outside attorneys and public relations people.
RTA Chairman John Gates called the Metra board’s deliberative process “flawed” and the settlement imprudent.