Image credit: Metra train / Flickr: Ron Cogswell (CC BY 2.0)
A $1,000 campaign donation to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle from a Metra executive regarded as the preferred replacement to ousted CEO Alex Clifford is the latest bomb to drop on the commuter rail agency.
The contribution from Metra deputy executive director Alex Wiggins was recorded by Preckwinkle’s campaign fund just days after Clifford resigned under fire – adding more intrigue to a public agency already mired in dysfunction and allegations of improper political influence.
Wiggins made the donation after attending an early May fundraiser for Preckwinkle at Wrigley Field – hosted by Metra board member Larry Huggins, a longtime Preckwinkle supporter who personally invited Wiggins to the event, the Better Government Association has learned.
While Wiggins told the BGA he didn’t feel pressured to attend and said the timing of the donation is “irrelevant,” the contribution adds to the impression that the agency is mired in politics and backroom dealing – as alleged by Clifford first in an April memo to Metra board members and subsequently in public hearings with state lawmakers and regional transportation officials.
Clout Requests Nothing New For Transit Agency
Huggins said he hosted the Wrigley event for Preckwinkle and invited Wiggins, Metra board chairman Brad O’Halloran and Stanley Rakestraw – whom Preckwinkle appointed to the Metra board last year. (County officials in the six-county region, and Chicago’s mayor, appoint the 11 members of Metra’s board, which in turn hires and oversees the CEO.) Huggins said he holds an annual event for Preckwinkle, for whom he’s been raising money for more than 20 years.
On June 29, the Preckwinkle for President campaign fund reported a $1,000 contribution from Wiggins, one of the two Metra executives who’ve handled CEO duties since Clifford resigned on June 21. Wiggins’ contribution is notable because of its timing and also because Clifford, in his April memo to Metra board members, claimed Huggins and O’Halloran not only wanted Clifford gone, they wanted Wiggins to replace him.
|Metra deputy executive director Alex Wiggins / LinkedIn|
Huggins, O’Halloran and Wiggins all deny Clifford’s allegations. “That just did not happen,” Huggins said.
Clifford also has accused Huggins, a black contractor, of pressuring him to award more Metra contracts to African-American firms. And Clifford indicated that Huggins and O’Halloran wanted him out because he resisted patronage requests from Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and other politicians.
Wiggins said his contribution had nothing to do with Clifford or pursuing the CEO job and that he would be offended by any suggestion to the contrary. He maintained that no Metra board members have talked with him about replacing Clifford.
Wiggins, who is paid $178,500 a year and started working at Metra in 2012, explained that he didn’t have his checkbook at the fundraiser but wanted to be sure to donate before June 30, the end of the state’s campaign finance reporting period. Huggins said he’d told guests to contribute by June 30 to boost Preckwinkle’s campaign filing.
|Metra board member Larry Huggins / Credit: John J. Kim~Sun-Times|
Wiggins said he supported Preckwinkle because he admires her leadership. “Even though I’m a public employee, I’m still an American citizen,” Wiggins said. “If I choose to support someone and write them a check, it is my right to do so.”
While Preckwinkle doesn’t have a direct role in the selection of Clifford’s replacement, she may have some influence given her appointment of Rakestraw and her political ties to Huggins and O’Halloran. Preckwinkle has collected $2,000 in donations from O’Halloran since 2010, more than $11,000 from Rakestraw since 2008 and about $30,000 from Huggins dating back to 1999, according to campaign finance records.
Preckwinkle, who is up for reelection next year, has ramped up her fundraising as of late. She collected more than $475,000 in June alone – her highest one-month total as County Board president.
|Metra board chairman Brad O’Halloran / LinkedIn|
But Huggins and O’Halloran say this was nothing more than four individuals supporting an elected official who’s steering Cook County in the right direction. They said they haven’t talked with Preckwinkle or anyone else about who should be Metra’s next CEO.
Preckwinkle could not be reached, but her campaign issued a statement denying any wrongdoing: “President Preckwinkle follows the rules laid out by the Cook County Board of Ethics. Campaign contributions have no bearing on the decisions she makes in her role as County Board president.” County government spokeswoman Kristen Mack issued a statement regarding Preckwinkle’s role in the selection of Clifford’s replacement: “Metra has not announced a process for naming a new CEO. It would be premature for President Preckwinkle to weigh in. She has no specific individual in mind, but believes the next CEO should have a transportation background.”
Clifford could not comment for this story, according to his attorney, Michael Shakman, citing a confidentiality clause in Clifford’s severance package. Concerns about the size of that buyout deal, which could top $700,000, led to hearings before state lawmakers and regional transportation officials where Clifford voiced many of the patronage allegations he raised in his April memo.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Alden Loury, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9036.