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D.C. airports panel acts to halt lavish travel

New rules drop no-bid contracts

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The authority overseeing the D.C. area's two main airports approved new travel rules for its board of directors and staff and decided to halt no-bid contracts, as the emotions of the embattled board members simmered at a contentious Wednesday meeting.

Under the new rules, board members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) must have their travel approved by the chairman or vice chairman and their meal expenses will be limited to $71 per day, among other changes. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General uncovered lavish expenses from board members like a $9,200 plane ticket to Prague and $238 for two bottles of wine. Alcoholic drinks are not reimbursable under the new guidelines.

Under the previous policy, travel forms were completed by MWAA staff, including cost estimates for transportation, hotels, food and other expenses. Members reported their travel to the board and were directed to "make every effort to secure the most economic and cost effective" tickets. However, the approval process was not rigorous. The chairman and executive committee only received quarterly reports of money already spent by each board member, after reimbursements were granted by the board's secretary and ethics officer. Members were also reimbursed "for beverages and snacks consumed as part of standard business practices and events," though no dollar amount was tied to food.

"We want MWAA to be as well run as any public entity, and we are prepared to re-examine any policy or practice to achieve this objective," said board chairman Michael A. Curto.

The board is also closing out the practice of awarding no-bid contracts for services – some of which went to former board members – a complaint raised by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and District Mayor Vincent C. Gray in a letter to Mr. Curto last month.

The most prominent example was a $180,000-per-year contract for former board member Mame Reiley, who has been fighting breast cancer since 2010, to remain an adviser to the board after she resigned earlier this year for health reasons.

MWAA President and CEO Jack Potter took full responsibility for the hire on Wednesday. He said he brought Ms. Reiley on because of her skill set, political and business connections in the area, and knowledge about rail; the board is also overseeing the 23-mile, $6 billion Rail-to-Dulles project. However, Mr. Potter said that he would not have hired Ms. Reiley if he had it to do over again and her contract has since been terminated. She will leave by the beginning of October.

"I think I understand the optics a lot better," he told reporters. "I think she made a contribution, but I understand the issue that faces the authority."

Despite the changes to previous policies, regional and political splits among the board members were exposed to the public – warts and all – during Wednesday's meeting.

District appointee H.R. Crawford lamented what he called a disproportionate Virginia influence on the board, saying members were largely convinced by Virginia appointee Ms. Reiley to vote for an underground rail station at the Dulles airport stop. After a public outcry over the decision – it added about $300 million to the project's price tag – the board reversed course and opted for an above-ground option.

"This rail system is not going up U Street," said Mr. Crawford, a former D.C. Council member who represented Ward 7. "This board has become everything it should not be. It has become politicized."

Shirley Robinson Hall, another District appointee, said she was not aware ofMs. Reiley's contract until she read about it in newspaper reports, saying there was an appearance of an "old boys' network" and "shadow board" operating behind the scenes.

"I was certainly not privy to decisions being made," she said. "The trust on the board is waning."

Mr. Potter said that the hire did not require board approval. Mr. Curto said he didn't know what behind-the-scenes action Ms. Hall was referring to, since six new board members have come aboard since November 2010.

"I think all board members were engaged and involved," Mr. Curto said, describing Wednesday's exchanges between members as "just robust discussion about controversial topics."

In the end, federal appointee Robert Clarke Brown was the lone dissenting vote on the new travel policy. He pointed out that while it may be relatively easy for local members to make trips to board and business meetings, federal appointees often need more flexibility for their travel. Mr. Brown is the treasurer of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

"When Tom was a member of Congress, he didn't have the Speaker approve his travel," Mr. Brown said, referring to Vice Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, who represented Virginia in Congress from 1995-2008.

Mr. Davis clarified that was the case only for domestic trips.

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