- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Elected leaders from the District, Maryland and Virginia joined the nation’s top transportation official on Tuesday calling for immediate reforms at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in the wake of recent reports that raise “serious doubts” about its effectiveness.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sent a letter to the authority about charges of nepotism and conflicts of interest — among other problems — that had been outlined in a draft report from his agency’s inspector general in May and in recent news reports. The letter, signed by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, reminded the board to conduct itself with “utmost integrity and with continuous regard for the public it serves.

“We are gravely concerned with the lack of accountability, transparency and sound judgment that has come to light regarding the Board’s recent activities,” the letter to Chairman Michael A. Curto and board members said.

The scathing interim report from the transportation agency’s inspector general said the regional authority, which oversees one of the largest public works projects in the country, is rife with mismanagement, a glaring lack of transparency and lavish spending habits that have included thousand-dollar dinners and a $9,200 plane ticket to Prague.

The wide-ranging audit report came after a yearlong investigation of the policies and effectiveness of the authority, which operates Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport and is overseeing the $6 billion Dulles rail project.

“Overall, the report depicts an organization that conducts much of its business behind closed doors, awards many of its contracts on a sole-source basis, and is in desperate need of reform,” Mr. LaHood’s letter said.

The “outraged” officials outlined several reforms, calling on the board to overhaul financial, procurement and human resources policies to be more transparent; to terminate contracts with former board members and employees that were not competitively bid; to end any employment relationships with former board members; and to adopt post-employment restrictions for board members. The board should also enhance its ethics training, tighten its travel procedures, encourage transparency and brainstorm ways to cut operating costs, the letter said.

Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III noted in the 16-page report that the authority has an ethics code for its board of directors but does not provide enough oversight and support to ensure that it’s followed.

Mr. Scovel pointed out that MWAA has policies that approve travel and expenses for meetings and business events but that they do not provide suggested limits for travel expenses, which can lead to expenditures “that may appear excessive.”

One example cited a $238 request for reimbursement that a member of the 13-member board of directors submitted for two bottles of wine. Regular airports authority employees are forbidden from seeking reimbursement for alcohol.

The report said a handful of board members also hosted three dinners at a cost of $4,800 during a trip to Hawaii for a conference.

Airports authority policy says directors should make every effort to find the cheapest way to travel, but investigators found one member regularly was reimbursed for one-hour round-trip flights to board meetings — purchased less than a week in advance — at costs ranging from $761 to $1,125. Another member bought a ticket to a conference in Prague for $9,200 just 10 days before the trip.

John “Jack” Potter, president and CEO of the airports authority, and Mr. Curto said in a joint statement Tuesday that the authority had made “significant progress” in addressing many of the concerns outlined in the letter.

The officials said the authority had increased transparency by clarifying policies for closed-door meetings and adopting new rules governing the release of public information, revised the travel and ethics policies, ended contracts with former board members and established new internal controls.

The statement said the reforms would be discussed further at the board’s Sept. 5 meeting and that the authority was “committed to restoring public trust wherever it is lost and to earning and assuring the confidence of the people we serve.”

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