Metra, Pace and the CTA have paid a total of more than $60,000 to a monthly newspaper run by a member of the RTA board, which funds and helps regulate the public transit agencies, records and interviews show.
Beside being on the RTA board, the Rev. Tyrone Crider also publishes the Christian-oriented newspaper the Gospel Tribune, which is distributed to black churches in the Chicago area and claims a readership of 50,000 people.
Most of the money that the transit agencies under the RTA’s purview have paid to the Gospel Tribune has been for advertising. Metra also has paid the Gospel Tribune to hold conferences to help minority contractors learn “how to do business with Metra.”
Crider acknowledges that he’s making money off the agencies he helps regulate.
He says he sees nothing wrong with that. And he says he asked a now-former attorney for the RTA about the arrangement and was told it posed no problem.
“I would have never taken any money from any agency if it was perceived as a conflict of interest, which is exactly why we ran it by the [now] former legal counsel,” says Crider, who is senior pastor of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church of Chicago.
“A common interest is not the same as a conflict of interest, and we have a common interest with the transit agencies.”
RTA officials say they are unable to confirm that legal opinion. But, in a written statement, they say the RTA’s “policy governing employees’ and board members’ outside business relationships were not violated, and the work that Gospel Tribune performed was highly valuable to both Metra and many disadvantaged businesses.”
The Cook County Board appointed Crider in 2008 to the RTA board, a paid, part-time post that pays $25,000 a year. His first RTA board meeting was in April of that year.
He made a customer of Metra later that year, when the agency wrote its first check to the Gospel Tribune for advertising, for $1,000, in December 2008.
Since then, Metra has paid Crider’s business more than $40,000 for ads and “consulting” fees tied to the minority business conferences, the agency’s records show.
Some of the spending authorizations were signed directly by Metra’s then-executive director, the late Phil Pagano, who killed himself May 7 by stepping in front of a Metra train near Crystal Lake amid investigations into bonuses and cash advances that Pagano had awarded himself.
The newspaper death notice placed by Pagano’s family notes with pride an honor that Crider’s publication recently had bestowed upon him: “Last month, Phil was recognized for his devotion to supporting diversity initiatives and minority rights when he received the Gospel Tribune’s 2010 Keeper of the Dream CEO of the Year award.”
Crider says he didn’t seek business from the transit agencies over which the RTA has oversight. Rather, he says, they sought out the Gospel Tribune to advertise.
Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot, though, disputes that. Wilmot says the suburban bus agency began advertising with the Gospel Tribune in August 2009 after Crider suggested doing so.
“He was having meetings with us, just like he was having meetings with other service boards to get introduced to people” in his role as an RTA board member, Wilmot says, to “find out the issues we were having.”
He says T.J. Ross, Pace’s executive director, told Crider that “we were getting complaints from some people within the African-American community, that they weren’t receiving our messaging, and they were concerned about that.”
“Rev. Crider raised the issue of his newspaper,” Wilmot says, adding, “In no way, shape or form was there an urging for us to work with his paper … it was simply that he offered.
“We’ve been happy with the results. It’s cost-effective because the advertising rates, compared to the dailies, are very reasonable.”
Pace has spent nearly $20,000 on advertising with Crider’s paper, according to Wilmot.
The CTA advertised once with the Gospel Tribune, paying $600 earlier this year “to remind customers that thousands of Chicago Cards were due to expire so that customers could seek replacement cards,” says agency spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney, who notes that the CTA uses “mainstream media and community newspapers to reach a broad cross-section.”