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Metra executive left legacy and questions

(The following story by Dan Simmons, Stacy St. Clair and Richard Wronski appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on May 8, 2010. Doug Davidson is a member of Division 96 in Chicago and is the Assistant Director of Arbitration for the BLET National Division.)

CHICAGO Suspended from his job and facing a criminal investigation, Metra Executive Director Philip Pagano stepped onto the railroad tracks Friday morning and waited for his train to come.

In just a few hours, Metra's executive board was scheduled to hear about the financial irregularities that occurred under his watch. The results of an internal investigation were to be handed over to federal authorities and the Illinois attorney general's office.

As he walked onto the tracks, Pagano surely knew the pain this decision would cause. In his 26 years with Metra, he had met with dozens of devastated engineers after they unwilling participants in someone else's suicide attempt. He had allocated more than $1 million for safety programs to prevent situations like this.

An inbound commuter train carrying two dozen passengers came barreling through Crystal Lake shortly after 8 a.m. The engineer told officials in a statement that he saw Pagano about 5 to 10 seconds before impact.

Despite the locomotive's squealing brakes and piercing air horn, Pagano stood firm in the middle of the tracks. He looked the engineer right in the eye.

He was killed instantly.

At the scene, authorities found Pagano's wallet and a copy of Metra's procedures for a service disruption after a suicide, sources said.

He also left an apparent suicide note at his Crystal Lake home, McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren said.

"I'm shocked at the whole thing," said Doug Davidson, an official with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "He would definitely know the impact it would have on the engineer and others on the train. You question whether he was making a conscious statement to the world."

In Chicago, Metra abruptly canceled the emergency meeting. The board also delayed plans to turn over the results of its internal investigation to several law enforcement agencies. Officials will not say when or if the report will be released.

Pagano, 60, was placed on administrative leave with pay April 30 after Metra Chairwoman Carole Doris said she learned he had received an unauthorized $56,000 "bonus" on top of his $269,625 salary. Metra does not pay bonuses.

Sources told the Tribune that Metra's special counsel has looked into whether Pagano drew a salary advance on vacation time for 2010 and 2011 without authorization. Pagano got 11 weeks a year of vacation, meaning that one year of his vacation pay equals about $57,000.

The financial irregularities date back several years, sources said.

Cook County prosecutors have launched their own criminal probe.

Pagano met with agency investigators on Wednesday and admitted to financial irregularities that included the vacation cash-out and advances from his retirement fund, sources said. He had made a similar confession to board members at a closed-door meeting last week.

Board members said he seemed to recognize that his career would end in disgrace.

"He knew he had embarrassed his family and Metra," board member Jack Schaffer said.

While showing remorse on several occasions, Pagano repeatedly refused to explain the reasons for his actions to Metra officials. He denied taking the money to pay for illegal or immoral activities.

"It wasn't drugs or alcohol or gambling or any crazy thing," Schaffer said.

Pagano's attorney George Jackson III declined to comment on the meeting, citing respect for Pagano's family. He described his client as "a wonderfully nice guy."

Others who knew the occasionally gruff Pagano described him as a hardworking public servant who cared about Metra's employees. Friends said he took pride in running the nation's second-largest commuter rail system and providing more than 80 million passenger trips a year on the agency's 11 main lines.

Pagano joined Metra in 1984 and became the executive director four years later. During Pagano's tenure, Metra invested more than $5 billion in improvements to the system, including renovated tracks, new stations and upgraded trains. In 2006, the agency completed the expansion of its North Central Service as well as extensions of its Union Pacific West Line to Elburn and its SouthWest Service to Manhattan, with the projects finished on schedule and $50 million under budget.

"He was an icon here," Schaffer said. "Family was the only thing he loved more than Metra."

Metra released a statement praising Pagano's "good work" on the agency's behalf and extending its sympathies to his family. There was no mention of the internal investigation.

"Phil served this agency with distinction for many years," the agency said. "Today, we shall remember the good work he achieved with our board of directors and the men and women of Metra. He was dedicated to our passengers and he always considered the men and women of Metra his family and there is a tremendous sense of loss within the agency."

An autopsy was expected to be performed Saturday.

The engineer involved in the incident will receive counseling through his union, Davidson said.

"Like all engineers, it's something that he'll struggle with for a long time," Davidson said. "Phil Pagano knew that very well."

Monday, May 10, 2010

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