Airports board seeking to repair its image

September 4, 2012

The board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority meets Wednesday with one goal in mind: to repair an image battered by reports of insider contracts, lavish travel spending and other questionable dealings.

Members are expected to approve new rules for travel and entertainment, and begin discussion on a new ethics policy they hope will erase the image of a dysfunctional board that operates by its own rules.

The proposed travel policy would put limits on the amount of money board members can spend on plane tickets and meals. In the past, board members argued that the money they get for trips and meals makes up for the fact they are not paid for their board service.

But board Chairman Michael Curto said that if the board is to restore trust in its ability to manage the Silver Line Metrorail extension, is must change its practices.

For the first time in the authority’s history, board trips must be approved by the board’s chairman or vice chairman. While meals will be covered, board members who want to order a glass of wine or a cocktail will have to do so at their own expense.

“We’re on a good path,” said MWAA chief executive Jack Potter, who addressed some of the issues raised in an interim report released in May by the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general. “The goal here is to first and foremost make sure our policies and procedures are best practices,” he said.

Thomas M. Davis III, the board’s vice chairman and a former member of Congress, said the board wants to look ahead.

Last month, the federal transportation secretary, the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of the District — who collectively oversee the authority — issued an unusually sharp rebuke of the ethics and judgment of the authority, questioning whether the board was fit to oversee construction of the $5.6 billion Dulles Rail project.

The letter followed a series of reports critical of the authority and the way it does business.

The inspector general’s report questioned board expenditures on travel, including $9,200 spent on a business-class plane ticket to Prague for board member Dennis Martire. The interim report also questioned the authority’s contracting procedures, noting that $6 million in contracts were awarded without board approval. In another instance, the authority awarded a no-bid contract to the law firm that employs Curto’s wife, the report noted.

News accounts detailed expensive dinners and first-class plane tickets to Hawaii. The Washington Examiner reported several instances in which former board members were given no-bid contracts and revealed that former board chairwoman Mame Reiley was given a $180,000 job the day after she resigned from the board. While none of the expenditures appears to have violated board policies, the disclosures hurt the board’s image.

MWAA officials moved quickly to end the contracts with former board members, but Reiley remains a member of the MWAA staff. Potter also has taken steps to address some of the concerns raised in the inspector general’s report regarding contracting at the authority.

The board also will discuss new ethics policies, which are likely to place limits on the hiring of former board members as consultants and will require board members to be proactive about disclosing potential conflicts of interest.

The most notable action Wednesday is likely to come on travel, which has been a recurring issue for the MWAA. In 2008, after a Washington Post report detailed instances in which some board members flew first class and expensed meals with spouses and hotel rooms or suites booked beyond conference dates, the board pledged to consider lower-priced options for travel — but an effort to put in place stricter rules fizzled.

Curto said that members understand that they need to change their behavior and he expects them to embrace the new rules.

The board also will discuss changes to its ethics policy. The MWAA has contracted with the law firm Venable to revamp the authority’s policy. MWAA spokesman David Mould said the costs and duration of Venable’s services had not been determined. He said it would be the fourth time that the authority has revised its ethics guidelines since it was established in 1987.

There are other potentially divisive matters on Wednesday’s agenda. For instance, there is the issue of whether the authority should continue to pay legal expenses for Martire, a Virginia representative who is fighting his ouster by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). Three board members have said they don’t believe the board should cover Martire’s expenses. Martire said his expenses are covered under the board’s bylaws, which indemnify board members.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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