Body overseeing Washington airports called 'poster child for corruption'

House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. J. Scott Applewhite/AP File Photo

The regional body overseeing Washington area airport projects such as the subway extension to Dulles International Airport is a “poster child for corruption” that needs major management reforms, a House committee chairman said.

“This is a sad chapter for metropolitan Washington and advocates for good D.C. transportation,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said at a Friday hearing of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that reviewed a Nov. 1 Transportation Department inspector general report. “The IG found problems with hiring practices, a lack of competition for contracts and ethical violations.”

Mica mentioned contractors providing Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority employees with trips to golf tournaments, tickets to sporting events and concerts, and travel and accommodations amounting to nearly $5,000, as well as “preferential treatment to friends and relatives of board members.”

The board, which employs 1,400 and consists of political appointees made by the Maryland and Virginia governors and the District of Columbia mayor, has been in the news in recent months because of debates over the cost and scope of the Metro extension to Dulles and because of questionable salaries and travel expenses of some employees and board members.

Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III testified that “MWAA’s policies and practices have not provided the controls needed to ensure accountability, transparency and sound governance.” A lack of internal controls has created a culture that allows questionable contracting practices . . . including initiating work before contract award, awarding sole source and limited competition contracts without proper justification, and providing nonpublic information that gives potential contractors an unfair advantage in competition.”

Scovel criticized the authority for lacking a documented policy on its hiring process. This, he said, “has allowed senior officials to place candidates into new or existing positions without job descriptions, competition or completed background checks. In some cases, senior officials abused MWAA’s student program to hire employees who were not students, using personnel documentation that falsely showed student status. MWAA’s lack of oversight also resulted in employees with known criminal convictions working at the authority in sensitive and management positions for more than a year.”

The IG said the authority has taken some positive steps in recent months but further reforms are needed.

MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto told the committee that “the criticisms and issues raised in these reports, and in subsequent media coverage, have been unpleasant to hear and damaging to the authority's reputation and public trust. They will require time and hard work to address. But we are determined to do what is necessary to address them.” Some of the problems, he added, stem from recent changes in board size and membership, which makes for a board inexperienced in the authority’s procedures.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who in August had sent a stern letter to the board demanding reforms, testified that MWAA “had made considerable progress in addressing the issues.” He said he was pleased with the board’s level of cooperation.

Also serving as a witness was Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who argued that the ethical problems point to a need to restructure the board and to give Virginia more appointees. That view troubled Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who called that plan “essentially a takeover of the airports authority." On Thursday she introduced a bill to require MWAA to comply with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the set of rules that governs the acquisition process for federal agencies.

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