CHICAGO: Metra, an agency that oversees commuter rail service in the Chicago area, has gone on the PR offensive to separate itself from one of its former board members recently indicted on charges of tax evasion, who is also caught up in allegations of accepting kickbacks from companies bidding for contracts.
Metra's efforts garnered negative press in one major Chicago daily, but Frank Malone, Metra's director of media relations, said he doesn't regret the steps he took, and would take the same course of action again.
On June 21, Metra began distributing a letter to its 2,600 employees and to riders on its 700 daily train runs saying it was outraged that a former board member might have tried to accept money to influence its awarding of contracts. The letter further stated, "We cooperated fully with the US attorney with the confidence that both our bidding process and our staff involved with that process were above suspicion and beyond reproach. The US attorney confirmed our confidence. His announcement in no way implicated others at Metra."
The letter came two days after allegations about the former board member surfaced.
Malone said the agency decided to distribute the letter to commuters because "everybody here feels pretty badly about this accusation. We want to let people know we don't feel good about this."
He also wanted riders to know the incident would not impact service.
Metra first considered distributing the letter solely to its employees, but Malone advised that any message to employees would find its way to the general public, so the wisest course of action was to be open with the letter. It was also posted on Metra's website. "If we didn't do this, people would ask, 'What are you hiding, and why didn't you say something about it, Malone said.
The Chicago Sun-Times covered the story in its June 24 issue, pointing out several inaccuracies in the letter detailing exactly what the charges were against the former board member.
It noted, for example, that the board member had not been indicted for his alleged attempts to influence Metra purchasing decisions, but for tax evasion. Allegations about the board member, who left Metra in April, came to light as part of an ongoing investigation of widespread corruption in the Illinois secretary of state's office while present governor George Ryan was secretary of state. Constant news about the scandal was a major reason the governor decided not to seek reelection this fall.
"The Sun-Times article was somewhat snooty, Malone said. "I think that was quibbling. This was an attempt to communicate with our customers," he said. "We're just puzzled by the paper's reaction to it."
Malone claims he hasn't received negative feedback from either commuters or employees, so he thinks Metra made the right decision in distributing the letter.
Addressing the Sun-Times article, he said, "I don't see why this would prevent us from doing this again in a similar situation."
Metra operates with a $440 million annual budget, overseeing 11 main commuter rail lines into Chicago. Metra provides 300,000 rider trips into and out of the city every day.