|Image credit: John J. Kim: Sun-Times and Flickr: Ron Cogswell (CC BY 2.0)|
Which moves faster — a Metra train filled with commuters, or a Metra scandal filled with resignations, revelations and investigations?
Let’s call it a tie.
And then move on down the line to shed more light on another Metra story you may have seen in the Sun-Times last Sunday.
This one features Alex Wiggins — one of the two people who are temporarily running Metra — and how he quickly learned the “Chicago Way” after coming here from far away, the West Coast, where he held several administrative jobs.
Wiggins was hired in 2012 as one of Metra’s deputy executive directors, reporting directly to the CEO.
And this summer, barely a year later, he donated $1,000 to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The CEO at the time was Alex Clifford.
And the donation came just as Clifford was being forced out of his job by the Metra board, which automatically put Wiggins in contention for the top spot, and not just temporarily.
Preckwinkle doesn’t appoint Metra’s CEO, but her supporters on the Metra board do, and that included a Metra board member who resigned on Friday, Larry Huggins, a politically hyperactive fellow who invited Wiggins to attend a fund-raiser he was hosting for Preckwinkle.
Wiggins complied, and later contributed a grand.
Ethics 101 suggests that Huggins shouldn’t have asked Wiggins to attend a Preckwinkle fund-raiser, and she shouldn’t have accepted his campaign cash.
Why? Because Wiggins’ job security and possible promotion could have depended, in part, on Huggins, so there’s implicit pressure to attend the event and contribute.
And Preckwinkle’s donors include Metra board members who control Wiggins’ fate, so she’s tacitly encouraging a “pay to play” scenario by accepting Wiggins’ contribution.
As for Wiggins, he shouldn’t be donating because, as a Metra staffer, it looks like he’s using campaign cash to curry favor, when his job ought to be as apolitical as possible.
This is the toxic nature of the politics that pollutes Illinois government at all levels, especially Metra, which reeked of excessive patronage and cronyism long before Clifford’s explosive allegations about staffing pressure from House Speaker Michael Madigan and other state lawmakers who control the transit agency’s budget.
Clifford thought he was being recruited to clean up the mess punctuated by the tragic death of his predecessor, Phil Pagano, who stepped in front of a speeding train in 2010 while he was under investigation for embezzling Metra funds.
But Clifford obviously misread the tea leaves, crossed the wrong people and, after threatening a lawsuit, was eased out with a “golden parachute” that could be worth more than $700,000, and includes a gag order aimed at keeping him quiet.
So here’s the question for Wiggins: Was he trying to score points with Preckwinkle and Huggins by donating money?
He says no way — he simply admires Preckwinkle — but this is all about questionable judgment and inopportune timing.
With Metra immersed in a major scandal, why would Wiggins, Huggins and Preckwinkle do anything that raises additional concerns about politics trumping professionalism?
Metra has a simple mission: Get people safely and efficiently to and from work and play.
Wiggins, ironically, complains that all the attention on the Clifford controversy undermines Metra’s mission.
But we’d suggest his political activity, and those of his enablers, is much more corrosive.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at 312-386-9097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.