- Washington Guardian - Thursday, November 8, 2012

It’s often been said that charity begins in your own backyard. Turns out, accountability and oversight might want to start there, too.

For decades, the federal government has partnered with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to run the two major airports in the nation’s capital, Reagan National and Dulles International, without providing much oversight to how money was spent by the airports’ governing board or its employees.

A recent audit shows the consequences of that laissez-fare approach:

-Two-thirds of the contracts awarded by the MWAA were done without open competition;

-Former employees and Board of Director members often got side jobs paid by federal monies;

-Employees got free Super Bowl tickets from contractors they were supposed to oversee;

-And one contract awarded for $8 million in 1989 continues today at Dulles, having grown 1,700 percent through extensions of work having nothing to do with the project’s original scope.

Even on little things that should be in the area of expertise for an airport authority, MWAA let taxpayers down. For instance, board members often wasted hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of dollars by failing to buy discounted advance plane tickets, the inspector general found.

For creating a culture where wasteful spending and cronyism flourished, the MWAA wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction given by the Washington Guardian to the worst examples of government waste, fraud and abuse.

MWAA’s ambiguous policies and ineffectual controls have put these assets and millions of federal dollars at significant risk of fraud, waste and abuse and have helped create a culture that prioritizes personal agendas over the best interests of the Authority,” the Transportation Department Office of Inspector General said in a recent report that captured the breadth of problems.

The D.C. area’s two major airports are owned by the Federal Aviation Administration, but since 1986 have been operated by MWAA under a lease agreement.  The organization pays the federal government $5 million each year, and in turn gets to keep profits from landing fees, concessions and rent from tenant stores at the government’s airports.  

Like all airports, MWAA receives grants from the federal government for specific projects, such as $977 million for the new Metrorail mass transit line to Dulles, or $154 million in 2009 for bag security screening programs.  Spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs said federal grants account for less than two percent of MWAA’s revenue.

But investigators found the semi-governmental organization wasn’t subject to much oversight, and the organization’s board has been handing out plenty of perks, the IG said.

MWAA has not been able to hold its Board accountable to the same standards it holds its employees,” the inspector general said.  ”MWAA managers awarded excessive salaries, unjustified hiring bonuses, questionable cash awards and ineligible benefits.  For example, MWAA created a new position for a former Board member that included an annual salary of $180,000 for unspecified job duties, before ultimately terminating the position after public outcry.”

And investigators found that the board awarded “almost two-thirds of its contracts that exceeded $200,000 with less than full and open competition.”  In fact, five contracts each worth more than $200,000 were awarded without competition and without full approval of the board itself, watchdogs said.

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