Living large on taxpayers' dime

Living large on taxpayers' dime

Illinois politicians won't change until the voters demand it.

As almost everyone who's paying attention knows, Illinois is broke.

But there's a difference between broke and broke Illinois-style. There may not be enough money to fund legitimate government programs, pay months-old bills and fund public pensions, but there's still plenty for our elected and appointed officials to throw out the window.

That's the story being outlined in the Chicago area where a political stink involving prominent public officials shows their contempt for our tax dollars.

About a month ago, Alex Clifford, a bureaucrat most people never heard of, was sent packing by his political bosses. What was striking about Clifford's premature departure from his position as the director of METRA, a commuter rail operation, is that the METRA board gave Clifford a $718,000 buyout, or as a dissenting board member characterized it, "hush money."

The buyout and subsequent controversy has led to major revelations that demonstrate how the political class uses government agencies and taxpayer dollars to their benefit, not the public's.

Clifford, who came to Chicago from Los Angeles, was either unaware of or chose to ignore reports about how the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago operate. Almost immediately, he found himself besieged with requests to hire politically connected people and grant contracts to politically connected firms. Although such behavior may be the Chicago Way, Clifford refused because it wasn't the right thing to do.

Naturally, his bosses, steeped in our culture of corruption, were outraged by Clifford's refusal to play ball, most especially because Clifford declined a request by House Speaker Michael Madigan to give a pay raise to a METRA employee who was a Madigan campaign worker and political donor. Clifford's bosses feared Madigan would retaliate by overseeing cuts in METRA's budget.

So Clifford had to go. Fortunately for him, Clifford had enough sense to catalogue his experience in a lengthy memo (http://trib.in/14ZrGas) his bosses obviously feared would be made public.

So they paid off Clifford and wrapped up their contract with him in a nondisclosure clause that required both parties to remain silent. Fortunately, the nondisclosure agreement has collapsed in the face of subsequent official inquiries.

It's unlikely that anything big will come of it. Legislators made noises early about conducting an investigation into this abuse of tax dollars. But that was before Madigan's name came up. They won't be so eager to investigate Mr. Speaker.

By the way, Madigan got the Quinn administration to hire his political friend into a $70,000 a year job. Madigan's guy, Patrick Ward, was the only candidate interviewed for the job so, obviously, the hiring was strictly on merit.

This, in a nutshell, is the way Illinois does business — to benefit the relatively few insiders at the expense of the many. When the voters finally get tired of it, things could change. Until they do, it's business as usual.

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