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Ex-Metra chief's severance deal under scrutiny

CHICAGO (AP) -- A large severance package for Metra's former CEO is drawing scrutiny from state lawmakers who called it wasteful Tuesday and urged the Chicago-area commuter rail agency not to burden taxpayers with its costs.

Metra's board accepted Alex Clifford's resignation last week and approved $442,000 in severance. It also agreed to pay Clifford's legal fees, moving expenses and health insurance costs, which could push the buyout to more than $750,000.

State Reps. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, and David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, released a joint statement calling on Metra not to pass along to taxpayers the extra costs of the buyout beyond Clifford's contracted salary of about $252,000.

"The wastefulness inherent in this decision is truly shocking," Franks said.

Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran said last week that Clifford was departing because of a "difference in opinion" on the direction of the rail network. O'Halloran said the size of the "generous" payout was partly because Clifford had to uproot his family from California to take the job.

Clifford, a former executive at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, joined Metra in 2011. He replaced longtime executive director Phil Pagano, who was accused of defrauding Metra out of about $475,000. Pagano committed suicide in May 2010 by stepping into the path of a Metra train.

Clifford's contract was set to expire next February.

"The board could very easily have bought Clifford out of his contract or placed him on leave until it expired," Franks said. "Instead, they chose to give him more than his predecessor allegedly looted from the agency in the first place and send the bill to the taxpayers."

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Tuesday that Metra was not legally required to offer Clifford a severance package. It quoted experts including Thomas Lys of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management as saying that because Clifford resigned, he was not technically entitled to severance under his employment agreement.

State Rep. Deborah Mell, chairman of the Illinois House Transit Committee, told the Sun-Times she will talk with other committee members about whether they should hold a hearing to determine why taxpayers are footing the bill for a "huge" severance.

"I think for an agency that's already kind of cash-strapped, and they have major infrastructure problems and they need their stations to be updated, the last thing we need to be doing is having these huge payouts and turnover like this," the Chicago Democrat told the newspaper Monday.