Relatives of ex-MWAA official were paid $175,000-plus in no-bid contract

January 15, 2013

At least 10 percent of the workers at the agency overseeing the region’s airports have family members employed there, and the wife and daughter of at least one former official were paid more than $175,000 in a no-bid contract that he created, according to interviews and documents.

A friend of Arl Williams’s, a former vice president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), received nearly $800,000 from a series of contracts to do advertising work over six years, ending in 2009, according to the interviews and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The friend, in turn, hired Williams’s two family members and paid them as subcontractors, the documents and interviews show.

News of the contract comes as MWAA officials are under intense scrutiny over lapses in ethics, including taking Super Bowl tickets and other gifts from contractors, patronage and contracting deficiencies. The lapses, outlined in an audit by the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general, have prompted congressional inquiries and reprimands from federal officials and the states that fund the agency. The MWAA ultimately changed several policies, including its ethics rules.

The audit also criticized the MWAA for its hiring practices, saying the agency lacked “sufficient controls to detect and prevent nepotism.”

A review of records shows that at least 150 of the authority’s 1,400 workers are related by blood or marriage, including fathers, daughters, sons, in-laws and spouses. The agency operates Dulles International and Reagan National airports and the Dulles Toll Road. It also is in charge of the multibillion-dollar Silver Line Metrorail extension, the area’s largest public-works project.

The Washington Post reported last month that scores of family members worked at the authority, several employees worked in the same office and some high-ranking employees supervised their relatives. In a few instances, the high-ranking employees oversaw the office in which their family members worked, a violation of the authority’s ethics code.

But new documents obtained by The Post — called employee relationship verification forms — show that family hiring within the authority is far more widespread. Dulles Airport employs more relatives than any other division of the MWAA, with 63 family members, the records show.

The old ethics policy, which was strengthened Jan. 1 as a result of the audit, prohibits employees from hiring, supervising or working with relatives. They also cannot supervise family members — directly or indirectly — or “have influence over their work.”

David Mould, a spokesman for the MWAA, said officials are carefully examining the employment verification forms to make sure that all workers are following the ethics code. Mould cited one recent instance at National Airport in which a person was moved from his position after he was found to be in violation.

“Anybody who is found in such a situation will be moved,” Mould said. “We will make sure we are in full compliance across the board.”

In addition to Dulles Airport, other departments that have hired several relatives include Public Safety, with 41 family members, and National Airport, with 31.

“I think you would find fire service particularly has had families for generations,” agency Fire Chief Gary Mesaris said. “Not because they got special treatment, but because it’s a good place to work.”

Mesaris’s son, Matthew, works as a 911 dispatch supervisor, and his daughter, Meredith, was an intern in the authority’s student program.

MWAA officials recently ordered all staffers and board members to file the verification forms, listing any relatives employed by the agency and their positions. The forms were due at the end of the year and were prompted by the federal audit.

The audit also cited several contracting issues, including some that got special treatment.

The records and documents show that at least three contracts were given to a company operated by an old friend of Williams’s, Paulette J. Robinson, president of PJ’s Pen, a McLean-based consulting firm.

Robinson said in an interview that she met Williams and his wife, Teresa Thompson, during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when she and Williams worked in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

The three remained good friends, and Robinson said she learned that the MWAA was looking for a company to do advertising and related work. “I qualified as a local minority business enterprise,” she said. “But I understand why somebody would think there was a hint of an inside track.”

Robinson said she got the no-bid contract and hired Williams’s wife and the couple’s daughter, Anne.

“They were subcontractors,” Robinson said from her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she moved after dissolving her company last year. “I didn’t see a conflict of interest.”

Arl Williams worked with her on the contract, she said.

“The primary person I dealt with was Arl,” Robinson said. “He was very much a hands-on person. He had input into the contract.”

“I can see where somebody might think it’s inappropriate having [them] work for me while [Williams] is vice president,” Robinson said of the subcontract to Williams’s wife and daughter. Thompson translated ads from English to Spanish, Robinson said. Anne Williams did graphics design. Robinson said that the two were qualified to do the jobs and that she was familiar with their work.

Neither Arl Williams nor Teresa Thompson returned a phone call Tuesday seeking comment. Anne Williams could not be reached for comment.

Arl Williams left the agency in November. The federal audit found that as the authority’s vice president for human resources, he hired and supervised relatives and then denied it. Williams was vice president at the time of the audit.

A separate internal audit in 2005 raised questions about the PJ’s Pen contract, but they were largely ignored, and the agency continued to increase the value of Robinson’s contract nine times — from $54,000 to more than $423,000 during a two-year period, records show.

The review found that there was “no evidence that efforts were made to provide for competition, that market research was conducted or that efforts were made to produce a future competitive package for recurring items” as required in the contracting manual.

“We’re taking a look at all of the policies and making sure from this point forward everything is done properly,” Mould said.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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