D.C. airport authority employment is frequently a family affair

December 8, 2012

Meet the Kulle family: mom Helen, daughter Ann Kulle-Helms, son-in-law Douglas Helms, son Albert, daughter-in-law Michele Kulle and Michele’s brother, Jeffrey Thacker.

They all worked for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. All at the same time.

They are among scores of MWAA employees and board members whose spouses, children, in-laws and other relatives have landed jobs at the agency, according to authority records.

MWAA officials have come under intense scrutiny recently over lapses in ethics, including taking Super Bowl tickets and other gifts from contractors, patronage and other issues. But records obtained by The Washington Post show a far greater pattern of nepotism, involving not only board members, but high-ranking MWAA officials and others in several departments of the agency.

Some members of the same family work in the same office. Others have relatives who were hired temporarily, but returned year after year without reapplying, or they stayed on permanently. Several collected thousands of dollars in overtime and bonuses. In a few instances, high-ranking employees supervised their relatives or oversaw the office in which their family members worked, a violation of the authority’s ethics code.

All in the family at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Authority officials and employees readily acknowledge that controls over hiring were lax and rarely enforced.

“There were no clear-cut guidelines,” said MWAA board member H.R. Crawford, who will leave the board next month when his term expires.

Crawford, who has had at least three relatives, including a daughter-in-law, work at the agency, said family members are employed frequently, particularly among board members.

“If you ask a third of those folks, their relatives work there,” he said. “I never thought that we were doing anything wrong.”

Jack Potter, president and chief executive of the agency that oversees the region’s two major airports, the Dulles Toll Road and construction of Metrorail to Dulles, told a congressional committee last month that he did not know how many relatives of board members and staffers work at the authority.

An audit released last month by the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general found that the authority lacked "sufficient controls to detect and prevent nepotism,” and it called for the agency to revamp its policy. MWAA’s ethics code prohibits employees from hiring, supervising or working with relatives. They also cannot supervise family members — directly or indirectly — or “have influence over their work.”

“As a result of these weaknesses and poor oversight, there have been multiple violations of the code’s anti-nepotism . . . provisions and a lack of assurance that employees are fully aware of the ethics requirements,” the audit found.

The audit, which did not name specific employees, prompted authority officials to approve a new code of ethics. The new rules for board members took effect on Dec. 1; the revamped employee code is effective Jan. 1.

Both codes now will prohibit board members and employees from participating in the hiring, promotion or appointment of relatives.

“There’s nepotism, yes,” said Michele Kulle Bennett, 48, who was hired at the authority as a secretary in engineering in 1987 and retired on disability a decade later. “MWAA was very lax. But nobody pulled any strings for me.”

Helen Kulle, who did background checks on potential employees before she retired in 2011, said there was no favoritism in the hiring of her family.

“If it was a member of my family, my partner would do the checks,” said Kulle, 71. “We did not mess around.”

‘Not a patronage mill’

Crawford, who has been on the board since June 2002, sees nothing wrong with MWAA hiring his relatives. In addition to his daughter-in-law, Curtistene, Crawford said two of his 17 grandchildren worked in the agency’s student program.

One granddaughter, now 22, was paid more than $60,000 between May 2007 and January 2012, records show. Another, Rebecca Taylor, 27, collected more than $59,200 as a human resources assistant and student intern in 2007 and 2008. Taylor became a full-time employee in September 2008 and continues to work in human resources as a technician, according to records. She is paid $49,270 a year and has received more than $7,750 in bonuses and overtime. Taylor did not return a call on Friday.

“This is a government town and an agency town,” Crawford said. “If there’s a possibility that you can hire a relative . . . it was the norm.”

The children of two other board members — Chairman Michael Curto and Vice Chairman Tom Davis — also worked in the student program, as did the niece of a fourth board member, Michael O’Reilly. O’Reilly left the board last month.

“This is not a patronage mill,” said Davis, whose daughter worked in the fire department for two months in 2011. “Dozens of employees’ kids worked there.”

Davis’s daughter, Pamela, 27, said her father helped her get the job. “I got the job from him,” she said. “He suggested it for me. I didn’t know anything about the program.”

She was an intern on the ambulances and fire trucks at National and Dulles.

O’Reilly and Curto did not return several calls seeking comment.

The student program was created more than 15 years ago to supplement the authority’s work force and help shape the careers of students, according to Debbie Williams, who oversees the effort. The program requires that students be enrolled in high school or college and have a 2.5 grade point average. They are assigned to help passengers find gates or lost luggage at Dulles International or Reagan National airports, or to work in various jobs at MWAA headquarters and the Dulles Toll Road office. About 10 percent of the students this year are related to MWAA employees, Williams said.

Kin abound in student program

When Deborah Lockhart’s cousin was looking for a job during her high school summer break, Lockhart, an MWAA personnel manager, helped her get a spot in the student program in 2007, 2008 and again in 2009. Lockhart even supervised her one summer, according to authority records.

“I don’t know why she shows as having worked for me,” Lockhart said. “She worked in records, and the records person reported to me.”

The elder Lockhart also helped the girl’s older brother, now 23, land a student job at MWAA’s National Airport in the summer of 2006, a job he kept until October 2007. He returned as a student intern in 2009 and worked on and off until last May, making $12.37 an hour. He processed passports and identification while attending Montgomery College and was paid about $40,000, records show.

“I tried to be hands off about the whole thing,” Deborah Lockhart said.

Lockhart acknowledged that the brother-sister duo learned about the program after Lockhart “might have talked to their mom.”

Lockhart wasn’t the only MWAA staffer whose relatives got jobs in the student program. A review of documents found that more than three dozen employees and board members have had children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and in-laws who obtained jobs in the program year after year since 2006.

Many of the staffers were high-ranking officials, making more than $150,000 a year, including Dulles Airport manager Christopher Browne, Public Safety Vice President Elmer Tippett and Fire Chief Gary Mesaris, the records show.

Tippett and Mesaris also have other children who work full time for MWAA. Tippett’s son, Robert, works in the budget office at National Airport. Elmer Tippett’s grandson worked in the student program for two months in 2011 while in high school, assisting customers at National.

Elmer Tippett, who makes $210,000 a year, did not return a call seeking comment.

Mesaris’s son, Matthew, was hired at MWAA as a 911 dispatcher in 2009, two months after graduating from Fairfax High School. His initial salary was $36,513. Matthew, who turned 22 last week, was promoted earlier this year to supervisor of dispatchers. He is now paid $48,360 and has collected more than $19,000 in overtime since 2009, records show.

“Public safety’s been a large part of my life,” Matthew Mesaris said, adding that he does not report to his father. “But I wanted this and got this on my own.”

Mesaris’s sister, a student at the University of Scranton, worked for two months during the summer as a student intern in procurement. She found out about the program through her father, Matthew Mesaris said.

“She wanted to do something over the summer,” he said. “She didn’t just want to sit around.”

Her father, who has worked at the authority since March 2007 and is paid $156,273, did not return two messages left at his office.

Matthew Mesaris said he doesn’t have a problem with relatives working for the same organization.

“As long as they’re not in the chain of command, then it’s acceptable,” he said.

Sandra Kabagambe said that her “adopted mother,” Lynn Hampton, helped her get a job in the student program. Kabagambe worked in the program during breaks from the University of Virginia from 2003 until 2006.

“I found out about the program from Lynn,” Kabagambe, 28, said in a phone interview from Sacramento, Calif., where she’s doing a residency in general surgery at the University of California-Davis. “She told me they were hiring, and I applied, interviewed and got the job.”

Kabagambe, a refu­gee from the Congo who lived with Hampton and her husband, said she worked as an accounting assistant in the finance department “just helping in the office to get the work.” The department was overseen by Hampton, who was the authority’s chief financial officer and was paid $198,287.

“I worked in the same office as Lynn,” she said. “She was my boss’s boss.”

Hampton, who helped pay for Kabagambe’s college expenses, acknowledged that she told Kabagambe about the student program but said she had nothing to do with her ending up in her department.

“I just told her there were jobs at the airports authority; I didn’t tell her there were jobs at the finance department,” Hampton said. “She just ended up in finance. I’m pretty sure this is aboveboard.”

Jana Phillips, an associate general counsel for MWAA whose annual salary is $160,258, had two children in the student program. Her son worked as an ambassador helping international visitors at Dulles Airport, and her daughter worked on tax issues as an intern in accounting. Phillips said that neither she nor her husband, Neal, also an MWAA employee, pulled strings to get their kids jobs.

“Obviously, we work here and we knew about [the program], but that’s no guarantee,” Jana Phillips said. “The impression I had was that they were given the same treatment as anybody from the outside. They were both well qualified for their jobs, and that’s really all I can say.”

Phillips’s son, 22, worked in the program off and on from 2007 until last June and collected nearly $22,000 in pay, records show. His sister, 19, is a college student and worked in the program for two months last summer.

Neal Phillips, an aeroacoustics program manager in the authority’s Office of Communications, was paid more than $120,000 last year. His wife said she doesn’t see a conflict with the entire family working for MWAA.

“The definition of nepotism is supervising relatives,” Jana Phillips said. “That’s a problem. I wouldn’t want an organization that did that.

“But if they’re qualified and competed for it on their own, I don’t see a problem with relatives working in the same organization.”

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