In 2011, when Alex Clifford was brought to Chicago from Los Angeles to fix Metra, the commuter rail operation, someone neglected to warn him about the way things are done here.
Or if someone did, Clifford — an experienced transportation professional — didn't pay attention or play along. Good for him.
But for acting ethically, legally and professionally, he was "viced" — Chicago locution for getting dumped and humiliated for political reasons. Technically, he wasn't fired;
he was forcefully invited to leave, with up to $718,000 in hush money, thank you very much.
Clifford alleges that he got in trouble with the Metra board, and in particular Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran and board member Larry Huggins, because Clifford resisted political interference in hiring, firing, pay raises and contracting. Clifford lays out the details in a memo the Metra board tried to suppress. If you haven't read his account of the sorry way government is run in Chicago and Illinois you should do so at chicagotribune.com.
If what Clifford charged in the memo is true, you can't help thinking, as I did, that he stood up for Metra's riders and taxpayers by refusing to cave in to employment and contract demands made of him by O'Halloran and Huggins. One of the demands — for a pay raise for now departed Metra employee Patrick Ward — originated with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Clifford refused.
What business does Madigan have micromanaging Metra? No more than you and I. But Ward was a generous donor to campaign funds of Madigan and his daughter Lisa Madigan. Case closed. Lisa, as the Illinois attorney general, will continue to sit on her thumbs because daddy runs things.
O'Halloran denies wrongdoing, but in this episode, he allegedly was no better than a water boy for Speaker Madigan. O'Halloran chairs the board of one of the nation's largest commuter rail operations; his duty is to serve the interests of the riders, taxpayers and citizens of Illinois. Yet, he humbled himself just so a patronage insider could get a raise at the behest of boss Madigan.
Maybe Clifford should have known better than to take a government job in Chicago's and Illinois' political cesspool if he didn't want to get dirtied. I am reminded of one Michael Cafferty, an outside transportation expert who was hired in 1971 by Mayor Richard J. Daley to shape up the CTA. It wasn't long before Cafferty, an intelligent and decent man, was devoured by the political and bureaucratic establishment.
But if what Clifford alleges is accurate, O'Halloran did us a great service. He provided us with a real-time illustration of how things get done here. A cross section, if you will, of the routine way that people like Speaker Madigan and kowtowers like O'Halloran and Huggins and the entire Metra board (save one — Jack Schaffer — who supported Clifford) operate.
When it came down to doing what was right, the Metra board trashed its legal duty. It voted a hush money package for Clifford that was so large even the most tin-eared politician should have known that it would become a public relations disaster. Then the O'Halloran-led board tried to hide the mess by first requiring Clifford to keep his mouth shut if he wanted his settlement, and then denying the press the documents that clearly are in the public realm.
One cannot say enough about the go-along-to-get along cowardice of the Metra board.
We owe Clifford our gratitude, for his courage in standing up for what is right. Sadly, it often takes an outsider to take that risk. He can become a role model for the thousands of government employees who try as hard as they can to do their jobs the best they can. Our salvation is in their hands, because the voters keep electing grafters and crooks.
Is the revelation of the inner workings of the state and local political establishment worth the $718,000 that Clifford may collect? Perhaps. It certainly is if it miraculously weakens Speaker Madigan's grip and gives our public servants the backbone they need to stand up for what is right. And if the episode finally gets voters' backs up, then it will be worth every penny.
Clifford will leave with his dignity and integrity intact. He should also leave with our respect and deep thanks.