Report clears former Metra executive director

In a confidential report just released by Metra, an investigator hired by the transit agency told its board in 2013 that then-executive director Alex Clifford had done nothing "improper or illegal."

Metra's board of directors forced Clifford out anyway.

The report, which Metra commissioned last year and reluctantly released this week, was written in June, 2013 by attorney Rodger Heaton of the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson. It's titled, "Internal Investigation of Alex Clifford Allegations Made on April 3, 2013."

Clifford left the agency in June of last year, months after he alleged impropriety on the part of certain Metra board members and Illinois legislators. Six board members, including the chairman, resigned in the wake of Clifford's allegations.

Metra's board reviewed Heaton's report in September, 2013. The board then voted to give it to the state's executive inspector general (EIG), who'd launched his own investigation into the Clifford affair. The EIG has not reported results of that investigation.

After denying a year-long series of requests by Inside Chicago Government to release the Heaton report, Metra abruptly disclosed it this week. Among its conclusions:

■ Investigator Heaton "did not find any evidence of Mr. Clifford engaging in illegal conduct or other misconduct that appears to warrant him being dismissed for misconduct."

Yet Metra's board gave Clifford the boot, incurring $1.3 million in severance pay and legal fees that state Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) called "indefensible."

■ Clifford had alleged that board members had improperly influenced—or tried to influence—employment-related decisions. But Heaton "did not find any credible evidence of Board members directing Mr. Clifford to take any illegal actions, or . . . any Board member engaging in illegal conduct."

■ Clifford claimed that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and state Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) had sought special consideration for employees or job applicants "based upon their political sponsorship." But Heaton said that "[i]t does not appear that there was any direct request from a legislator that Metra hire or reward or promote a particular employee"—though, he wrote, an "indirect inquiry" from Madigan’s office about a raise for a Madigan loyalist "gets close" to a direct request.

■ Former Metra board member Larry Huggins had reportedly tried to get a Metra contractor to increase the number of minority workers for the Englewood Flyover project. Clifford complained that Huggins might've broken state law and Metra's regulations about undue influence over contractors. But, Heaton wrote, [t]his may merely be a situation of Mr. Clifford wanting to stay far away from" any appearance of improper behavior.

■ Later, Heaton wrote, board member Huggins wanted Metra to give a $50,000 outreach contract to an African-American contractor. Clifford, Heaton said, was "reluctant to agree to [Huggins' proposal], without Board approval and without attribution of it being made to Mr. Huggins’s efforts." But "Huggins did not want it to be presented to the Board as his own proposal." Huggins resigned in August, 2013 at the prompting of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Although investigator Heaton interviewed 17 Metra employees and board members, and had access to over 36,000 of their e-mail messages, he said his hands mere somewhat tied.

Heaton wrote that he "was not authorized to contact third parties as part of [his] investigation." And after Metra halted his probe after just five weeks (in May, 2013), he wrote, "I did not consider . . . additional facts that emerged" at later hearings held by the Regional Transportation Authority and the state legislature.

Document: "Rodger Heaton investigative memo 6/17/13"