Outsiders may think that the U.S. Congress is the least-loved political body in Washington, D.C. But the overseeing board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) doesn’t inspire great affection either.
On August 14, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray—two Republicans and two Democrats, no less—co-signed a letter to the MWAA expressing their “outrage” over continuing reports of malfeasance by the authority’s politically appointed, 13-member board of directors.
Reporting on the letter the next day, The Washington Post said the body that oversees Washington Reagan National and Dulles International airports “has lost the public’s trust.” Anyone who has shelled out 65 bucks for a taxi ride from Dulles to the nation’s capital would be interested to know that the MWAA is also responsible for the Silver Line extension of Washington’s Metro system to the airport, at $6 billion one of the nation’s largest infrastructure construction projects.
The MWAA is an independent agency created in 1986 by legislation in Virginia and the District of Columbia. The federal government conferred responsibility for operating Reagan National and Dulles airports on the authority in 1987 under a long-term lease. The governor of Virginia, in whose state both airports are physically located, appoints five members to its overseeing board; the U.S. president and the mayor of Washington, D.C., three each; and the governor of Maryland two. Appointees serve unpaid six-year terms.
The authority employs 1,400 people and is supported by airport revenues from landing fees, rent and concessions, not by taxpayer dollars. “The Authority is a public body, corporate and politic and is independent of all other bodies,” the MWAA regulations state. “It is not an agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia or the District of Columbia, nor is it a federal agency.”
That very independence seems to be what led to the compromised public trust. In a draft audit report in May, the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector general’s office noted that the MWAA is subject to neither state nor federal ethics, transparency and procurement laws, and operates by rules that are “generally less rigorous” than observed by other airport authorities and government agencies. “Our ongoing review has revealed a culture that is largely unaccustomed to external audits and inquiries by the accountability community,” the IG said.
Under the MWAA’s evidently liberal travel policies, one board member was reimbursed $238 for two bottles of wine with dinner; other members expensed $4,800 for three dinners with guests during a trip to Hawaii for a conference. The Post has chronicled board member Dennis Martire’s legal battle to keep his position after Virginia Gov. McDonnell sought to oust him over “individual decisions” that included a $9,000 business class trip to Prague to attend a conference. The authority’s enabling legislation and lease agreement with the DOT require that contracts in excess of $200,000 be competed, with some exceptions. During its review, the IG found that the MWAA treated exceptions as the rule and awarded nearly two-thirds of 190 contracts exceeding $200,000 “with less than full and open competition.”
It’s understandable that LaHood is aggravated by the board’s shenanigans. The transportation secretary intervened personally to broker an agreement with stakeholder municipalities to fund the second phase of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, which will extend Washington’s Metro rail system to Dulles International in 2016. LaHood’s letter, co-signed with the region’s political leaders, demands immediate reforms of the MWAA’s ethics, procurement and travel policies. “The board must undertake all of these actions and more, if it is to regain the trust of the public we all serve. Your candor and wholehearted implementation of these changes is the only acceptable course of action,” the letter states.
In response to the LaHood letter, the MWAA said it has taken several steps to reform its practices. “We acknowledge the concerns of the secretary of Transportation, our elected officials and others, and we are committed to restoring public trust wherever it is lost and to earning and assuring the confidence of the people we serve,” Michael Curto, the board’s chairman, and John Potter, president and CEO, said in a joint statement.