A former Chicago-area executive is blowing the whistle in the latest case to showcase what is derisively known as the "Illinois way" -- politicians' practice of doing business by dishing out favors to friends who contribute generously to their campaigns.
This time, a top-ranking Democrat has been implicated. The case involves Illinois' most powerful Democratic leader -- state House Speaker Michael Madigan -- and the former head of the Chicago area's commuter rail service, Metra. In a rare move earlier this week, Metra's ex-CEO Alex Clifford came forward publicly to reveal specific details about how he says he was forced out of his lucrative job after refusing to cave to political pressure.
Clifford, who was hired from California in 2001, testified during a recent Regional Transportation Authority board meeting in Chicago. For two hours he spoke openly about what he calls serious "ethical and moral character flaws" from people who practice the "Illinois way" of doing business, including Madigan.
Clifford claims Madigan specifically wanted a pay raise for a Metra employee, Patrick Ward, who has been a generous contributor to Madigan's campaign, according to state records. Clifford testified: "What is it that he (Ward) was doing so great and so different than other employees at Metra who have gone three years without a pay raise that would make this person special?"
Clifford ultimately rejected the request. In a statement, Madigan acknowledged sending a "recommendation to Metra senior staff that Mr. Ward be considered for a salary adjustment. ... When notified Mr. Clifford had concerns about the appearance of the recommendation coming from my office, I withdrew the request."
During a trip to the state Capitol in Springfield, Clifford says he was asked by Democratic state lawmaker Rep. Luis Arroyo to consider hiring somebody the Latino caucus sends him. Clifford says he told Arroyo "we have a process. Times are different today at Metra than they were under my predecessor. Every applicant, every employee will come in through the front door."
Clifford went on to point fingers at those who intentionally "railroaded" him into a poor performance evaluation which led to the end of his contract -- specifically Metra Chairman Brad O'Hallaron and another Metra board member. When Clifford approached O'Hallaron about his upcoming contract he claims O'Hallaron responded, "but we're just dating." Then said, "I need to get a meeting with Mr. Madigan and I need to find out what kind of damage you've caused to our potential for future funding."
When it was his turn to testify, O'Hallaron denied Clifford's accusations. O'Hallaron told the RTA board: "If as alleged by Clifford I was seeking to protect Speaker Madigan, why would I take his allegations immediately over to the OEIG (Office of Executive Inspector General) if I thought there was pressure from Speaker Madigan? It just doesn't make sense."
Clifford did not get the necessary votes to renew his contract earlier this year, but he left Metra with a $700,000 severance deal that some have characterized as "hush money" to keep Clifford quiet after threatening a lawsuit. Clifford denies that claim and says the money was "100 percent about my ability to get a job and how I've been damaged."
Metra announced on Friday that it plans to hire a well-known former federal prosecutor in Chicago to perform an independent investigation into Clifford's allegations and make recommendations concerning Metra's hiring and contract policies. Metra's board of directors must approve the hiring at a special meeting on Monday.
The man who oversees Illinois' government watchdog group says even though there was no illegal activity involved with the Metra scandal, the case has lawmakers squirming a bit more than usual.
"This is a very big deal, this is the first time in anyone's memory that Speaker Madigan has been implicated so directly in the workings of a public agency," Better Government Association President Andy Shaw said. "Madigan and hundreds if not thousands (of politicians) do this every day. We just don't hear about it very often, because it happens behind closed doors."
Shaw admits any hope for changing this type of behavior has to come from voters. "This is only going to change in one of two ways. People coming out to vote and deciding who represents them. And secondly when a groundswell of public outrage forces public officials to impose higher ethics standards upon themselves."
Illinois' history with questionable political ethics is rich. The state practically became the poster child for corruption during the criminal trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich attempted to sell off Barack Obama's coveted U.S. Senate seat in return for hefty campaign donations referencing it in the now infamous phone call saying, "I've got this thing and it's f------ golden and I'm not giving it up for f------ nothing."
Blagojevich is currently serving out his 14-year sentence in federal prison in Colorado.