ENGLEWOOD —U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago) said Tuesday he never tried to force Alex Clifford, the former CEO of Metra, to pay a Washington, D.C., organization $50,000 to monitor a federally funded transit project in his South Side district.
Instead, Rush said he only suggested the National Black Chamber of Commerce because he was asked to make a recommendation by Metra for the $93 million Englewood "flyover" bridge project.
"I did not speak to anyone at Metra directly. Someone from Metra called my office and made the request," Rush said at a news conference in Englewood.
Clifford has said that he was forced out of his job at the metropolitan rail agency after resisting pressure by powerful politicians in hiring and contract decisions, and named Rush in a memo.
Metra ultimately refused to pay the Black Chamber of Commerce to monitor hiring.
Rush, appearing at the site of the Englewood bridge project, defended his previous public push to add more African-American contractors and workers. He said that, initially, African-American-owned firms received $112,000 while white-owned firms received $90.5 million.
"There's something wrong with this picture when you consider that we're talking about a project in Englewood," Rush said.
"The amount for African Americans has since increased to $4 million, but only after I and other elected officials protested. And still, $4 million is nowhere near what African-American contractors should get for a project in the heart of the black community," Rush said.
According to Rush, $1.5 million was awarded to Hispanic-owned firms, and $736,000 went to Asian-American-owned firms for the project headed up by IHC Construction Cos.
David Rock, president of IHC, did not return calls seeking comment.
The project, which began in 2011, aims to ease congestion for the elevated bridge near 63rd and State streets. Metra and freights trains use the bridge daily, and without undoing the bottleneck that Rush said is caused by the bridge, Midwest train traffic would remain slow.
"Have you ever seen cars on the expressway sitting idle as traffic moves at a snails pace? That's what's going on here every day with these trains," said Rush. "When trains sit idle, fumes from the train pollute the air and contribute to health problems like asthma, which runs high in Englewood."
Across the street from where Rush spoke, a small group of black construction workers protested and called for Rush to resign. The group alleges that Rush is not telling the truth about his role in the flyover bridge project.
"He sold out Englewood for $50,000. I was hoping he would announce his resignation this morning, but I guess not," said Bob Israel, president of Save Our Community Coalition, a Chicago neighborhood group. "That's probably why he had the police run me and my people away this morning from the news conference."
Responded Rush: "Bob is a professional heckler. He shows up everywhere protesting anything that did not benefit him, so I am use to him heckling me."
But Israel wasn't the only one who questioned Rush's handling of the Englewood project.
An Aug. 2 Tribune story alleged that Rush pressured "a Metra contractor to hire more African-American companies for a crucial South Side rail project."
The congressman not only denied the story, but singled out a co-writer of the Tribune story, Stacy St. Clair, who attended the news conference.
"She has twisted and turned what I told her upside down and then added more lies to her story. That's what she does for a living," Rush said. "The Tribune has repeatedly lied on me."
Tribune Deputy Managing Editor Peter Kendall defended the Tribune story.
"The Tribune’s reporting on U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush’s role in proposed contracts involving the Englewood Flyover has been a meticulous and accurate exploration of a matter of great civic importance," Kendall said in a emailed statement. "A number of allegations made by former Metra CEO Alex Clifford call for deeper scrutiny, and in Friday’s article we fully met our responsibility as careful, fair journalists to shed light on some of these."
Larry Huggins, a Chicago businessman, who recently resigned as a Metra board member, said he did not ask the congressman to make a recommendation for a monitor.
"This is one reason why I resigned. All this 'he said, she said.' I have a business to run, and having your name in the paper every day is bad for business," Huggins said.
He added, "I do think it's unbalanced that a project in the black community did not generate more business for black-owned contractors and local residents."