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Illinois House speaker cleared in transit probe

Published: Thursday, April 10, 2014 11:41 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 10, 2014 11:41 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – An investigation into whether Illinois’ powerful House speaker improperly influenced hiring at Chicago’s scandal-tarnished Metra commuter rail agency found no legal violations, according to the Democratic lawmaker’s office.

A letter from House Speaker Michael Madigan’s ethics officer, Heather Wier Vaught, released Wednesday, said Legislative Inspector General Tom Homer has closed his investigation into improper involvement by Madigan and Democratic Reps. Luis Arroyo of Chicago and Elizabeth Hernandez of Cicero.

Madigan requested the investigation last June after ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford said he was pushed out of the job after he resisted interference from politicians demanding patronage jobs. Clifford, a former California transit executive, was hired in February 2011 with the mandate to clean up Metra after its Metra’s former executive director was accused of defrauding the agency out of about $475,000.

Homer on Thursday declined to confirm that his investigation was closed or that Madigan had been cleared, citing confidentiality laws. But in a statement released to reporters, he stressed that he can consider only whether existing laws and ethics rules were broken.

“A decision to close an investigation based on insufficient evidence does not constitute a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or a best practices award,” said Homer, a former state lawmaker and appellate court justice. “Moreover, closure does not bar the inspector general from resuming the investigation if circumstances warrant.”

Homer said he would recommend that the Legislature reform laws surrounding patronage hiring, conflicts of interest and transparency. He has previously complained that legislative ethics laws are a “toothless tiger.” Spokesman Steve Brown said Madigan would review any suggestions as he has other recommendations from Homer, but generally believes the state’s ethics act is sound.

Clifford said Madigan had sought a pay hike for a man who had raised money for the speaker’s political fund and had recommended someone else for a job. Madigan acknowledged recommending the raise, saying he was bolstering the position of the employee’s own supervisor, but didn’t remember recommending anyone else for a job.

Last week, a task force into Metra troubles appointed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn released a report that found Madigan repeatedly directed Metra to hire and promote people. It said it found records dating from 1983, when Madigan became speaker, showing in some cases, the politician not only recommend candidates, but in effect decided that they had been hired.

Madigan has not commented on the report, but Brown has called the claims “unverified information” so old no one could be expected to remember the facts.

One recommendation by the commission is on the Metra board’s meeting agenda for Friday. It would require Metra employees to document any “employment-related communication” from anyone not affiliated with the agency regarding hiring, firing, promotion, salary, benefits, discipline and more. The person making the recommendation, the subject of the communication, and the subject would be catalogued and open to public inspection.

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