Ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford might have had a duty to report to authorities the pressure he felt from House Speaker Michael Madigan and others to promote and hire certain workers. Madigan writes laws and doesn't break them. Many of Metra's board members should be fired. These are some of the thoughts of State Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, who serves on the House Mass Transit Committee after several weeks of controversy surrounding Metra.
The transit committee on which Franks serves has held hearings into the severance deal worth up to $718,000 in taxpayer dollars that was approved by the Metra board of directors for former Metra CEO Alex Clifford and, Franks believes, more hearings need to be scheduled. In this edited Reboot Illinois interview, Franks says many more facts need airing and questions answerd. The Metra board and too many others aren't accountable to anyone, he adds.
Q: What next in this saga?
A: I'd sort of like the General Assembly to have another crack at Mr. Clifford with the full confidentiality clause waived.
Q: To ask what questions?
A: Oh boy. I'd like to know everything. I'd like to know what was said to the board, and when it was said, and whether there are board meeting minutes to that effect. Whether Mr. Clifford talked to the proper authorities, if he believes these were illegal. I'd also like to know who else contacted Mr. Clifford for employment and whether those were listed and brought up to the board. Certainly I want to know all of those things. I want to know who's involved, the who, what, when, where, why. I want to know when the relationship started to sour, what he thought the reasons were. I want to know what his interactions with the other board members were. But I certainly think this is a larger issue too. I want to know about the governance. The fact of the matter is, we have these four different transit agencies. They don't work very well together and they are competing against each other for the same federal and state funds instead of working in tandem and in conjunction for the taxpayers. They have multiple staffs and multiple lobbyists and multiple messages. Until recently you couldn't even buy a ticket from one to the other. It was ridiculous, unlike most metropolitan areas that have public transportation, which was much more seamless than ours. We can't lose sight to the view that we're supposed to be here for the end users to make their experience efficient and cost-effective.
Q: Lisa Madigan, rightly or wrongly, has a conflict of interest at this point. So does somebody call in a special prosecutor and who can convene that? Who can appoint a special prosecutor if it comes to that?
A: I think RTA can certainly call in the U.S. Attorney if they wanted to because they get part of their funds from the Feds. I think that would probably make sense more so than more local folks. I think that's a big emphasis at this point. I'm not a criminal lawyer so I don't know what would be deemed criminal in this sense. I don't want to make that assumption at this point. That's a long way to go to assume criminality. It was interesting today in our local paper, the Northwest Herald, our local spokesman of that committee, Mike Tryon, he went so far as to say he knows the Speaker didn't do anything wrong, or something to that effect.
Q: Do you think we're all getting a little too hot and bothered about what the memo alleges Mike Madigan did?
A: I think we need to have the facts first before we come to a conclusion. I can tell you, when I was in a hearing last week, I didn't hear from nine of the board members, so I'd really like to hear what they have to say. Ultimately, they all should be fired because they didn't show, but one of the board members who did show, Jack Schaffer, made allegations of ghost payrolling as well as patronage, but when I asked him he couldn't give me any examples. If you make those allegations, you've got to be able to back them up. Why go on a wild goose chase?
Q: Do you still also want to ask Alex Clifford about the allegations he made in this memo?
Q: Are you still planning to call him before your committee?
A: Well, it's not my committee. There lies the rub. I wish it was my committee but it isn't. It's Representative Mell's committee, which it is convened under. As you know, I think she's soon to be alderwoman Mell.
Q: Speaker Madigan is the one who ultimately decides who gets to be committee chairman, who gets to call which meeting, if there is a subpoena involved...
A: Well, my whole time in the General Assembly, I don't remember there ever being a subpoena issued. Certainly the threat of it alone was enough, so we've never done it. I'm interested to see who the Speaker will name as chairman of that committee. He'll need to do that, I imagine, pretty soon. I'd like to have more hearings. Mr. Tryon would like to have more hearings, the Republican spokesman. I think it's necessary for the taxpayers and I'm going to request the Speaker have additional hearings.
Q: RTA is one of those quasi-government agencies that's spending a whole bunch of taxpayer money and they report to whom? There's no clear jurisdiction, no clear chain of command. If you were going to fix this, how would you fix it?
A: I would not have four separate agencies, first of all. I'd have one that would have all the riders in mind, not just their little fiefdoms. Look at Pace for instance. The only way you get to be a board member on Pace is to be a mayor or a former mayor. Do you think these guys have any more or less expertise than anybody? I would venture to guess that they don't know more than anybody else. This was created in such a way to create little fiefdoms, little patronage areas where people are taken care of because they get their healthcare and their pension and a nice little salary.
Q: Are people upset about Madigan's involvement in this, not that he's done something illegal, but that he's used his own little fiefdom?
A: Absolutely. I'm not sure it's illegal, though, and that's my point. The Speaker knows the law, he writes the law, and he doesn't break the law. He doesn't cross the line. He's been the subject of federal investigations that have found nothing. Many others have gone to jail or been indicted. He never has. He follows the rules. Perhaps the rules need to be changed. But also understand this, we live in a culture where if you wanted to go to the service academies to serve your country, you need to have a political sponsor. So there are cross messages being sent. We should take a deep breath and perhaps we need to change these rules. I think everyone who is in an elected position at the state level gets requests or has received a request to help somebody get a job. It's a tough position to be in because if you tell them, "No, I can't do that." Let's say you know somebody personally and you've worked with them for a long time, I'm not going to make a call to get them a job but they can certainly use me as a reference, because I can honestly say what your work product is. I shouldn't be precluded from that.
Q: Happens in the private sector all the time, right?
A: Exactly. And why should they be penalized if they happen to work for me in my state offices and when they want to get a job somewhere else, they put on their résumé that they worked for me and they wanted to apply to wherever it is, I don't know, IDOT, and then I can't give a recommendation? That's not fair to them.
Q: No, it's not, but there's a lot about public service that isn't fair. Would you also acknowledge that a call from the Speaker of the House about giving someone a raise isn't like me calling someone about giving them a raise?
A: I never make that call, first of all. But it's interesting that it didn't go through as well. But to the Speaker's credit, we don't know the whole story but what he said was he withdrew the request when the individual who received the request thought it was improper. I also wonder if Mr. Clifford had an affirmative obligation in this judiciary capacity, if he believed it was an illegal activity, to report these things. Maybe, I know this is sort of perverse, he was the only one who broke the law. If he had that obligation and didn't do anything, there is an argument to be made. That's why I don't know. That's why we need more information.
Q: What would be the ultimate success here for you? What's the end game? Is it even remotely possible that this contract could be nullified?
A: We're already obligated for about ($250,000). Perhaps we can get a structural change, which would be very necessary for the citizens. I think this could pave the way to having the board removed and perhaps having them elected so there's direct accountability. When there's this kind of power to spend, this kind of money, the taxpayer dollars, I don't know of any other position that's not elected. The school board's elected and they spend a lot less money. At least out in the suburbs they're elected, not so much in Chicago. I always think there ought to be direct accountability. I'd like to see this (contract) set aside so we can have a full vetting of everything. I think we should have complete, 100 percent transparency. Let's peel back the shade and let everyone see in.
Q: What do you mean by "set aside?"
A: If he's not reinstated, he's certainly owed his last six months' salary pursuant to his employment agreement. He'd still get part of it and the healthcare and things. But I've got a problem with the additional payments. I mean, we all do. There's an extra $500,000 or so that was utilized to settle this potential litigation. That may or may not be prudent, and if we had to pay that to settle the litigation, then it certainly shouldn't be secret. If there was laws being broken and people doing the wrong things, then there certainly has to be accountability. If people did the wrong things, then they need to go. There has to be a penalty.
Q: You said you would never make a phone call like Mike Madigan is alleged to have made. If you were Speaker, wouldn't you even be less likely to make that phone call?
A: Again, we don't know all the facts here but it sounds like he had a personal relationship with this guy and maybe he felt like he was being wronged. If this in fact happened, and I think the Speaker admitted to making that call, or someone did it for him, I think it's probably a very rare occurrence.
Q: How would you put it in perspective for everyone who maybe is getting too up-in-arms about all of this?
A: I'd say let's wait until all the facts come out. I don't think there's any white knights here. None. Especially with the board and that's where it starts. Actually, it starts with the people who appoint them which could be even worse because they're appointed because of their cronies and their patronage jobs, and then you get to the board which has very little accountability and doesn't even answer questions. I don't know how complicit they are. I don't know what they knew and what they didn't know, or should they have known or are they just mere rubber stamps and figureheads. That goes to a bigger question as well. When we have an executive, does the executive run the board or does the board run the executive? I sit on a number of corporate boards. The boards are usually the ones that give the direction. If we tell the president of a company to implement certain strategies and go forward, that's the board's prerogative. And if a person does not implement those strategies, then that person will be replaced. The board has to have vision and to give the policies for how a company has to run.
Q: But you're not saying it's normal practice for a board or a chairman to tell a CEO who they can hire and who they can fire?
A: No, but there's oftentimes, when you get to senior-level people, we want to be able to interview them as well. I'll use one of my companies. I'm chairman of a corporation and when it's time to hire an upper-level person, the board's going to meet that person. We've got to make sure it's a good fit. Then we can say yes or no. And we have. So I think there has to be some board involvement, at least at the upper-level stuff. Now for the other ones, no. I mean, come on, run your business.
Q: As far as the transit committee goes, you'd like to get some questions to Alex Clifford, you'd like to get some questions to the nine board members who didn't appear. Anything else?
A: I'd like all confidentiality waived by Metra, and by Mr. Clifford. I don't want people hiding behind their lawyers.
Q: And we see where that takes us?
A: Yeah, and then we can reevaluate. Once we have that, we will be in a better position. I had the same feeling in the pit of my stomach when we were having this hearing the other day as I did when we were starting the Blagojevich hearings. I wasn't sure where they were going or what we were going to find. I was out on a limb on that because no one wanted me to do those hearings, but the Speaker, to his credit, allowed me to.
Q: How much of all of this do you think factored into Lisa Madigan's decision not to run for governor?
A: None. I think this had nothing to do with it. I think she made her decision before and I think it was a coincidental timing.
A: Just that I was talking to some folks and she was leaning against it and it had nothing to do with Metra, and exactly for the reasons that she stated about her dad, but nothing to do with Metra. It's my understanding that she made the decision well before the Metra stuff came out. I think it was just a question of timing. I know a lot of people are trying to make that correlation. I don't see it at all.
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