Fairfax judge denies move to fill Martire’s seat on airports authority board

August 13, 2012

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s attempt to unseat labor leader Dennis Martire from the board of Washington’s airports authority failed Monday when a Fairfax County judge denied Virginia’s request to allow Martire’s replacement to fill his seat.

McDonnell (R) removed Martire from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board in mid-June after Martire had been publicly criticized for overseas travel expenses, including the purchase of a $9,000 plane ticket to Prague so that he could attend a transportation conference.

McDonnell appointed Caren Merrick, a McLean businesswoman and unsuccessful Republican legislative candidate, to replace him. But Martire immediately filed suit in federal court in the District to keep his seat, claiming that McDonnell’s action was unwarranted, unprecedented and unlawful.

At Monday’s hearing in Fairfax County Circuit Court, McDonnell’s attorneys asked that Merrick be allowed to hold Martire’s seat while questions regarding the legality of his removal are resolved in both federal and state courts. Without Merrick on the board, Virginia’s attorneys argued, the state would lose full voting power. The authority is overseeing construction of the $6 billion Metrorail Silver Line to Dulles International Airport.

“The voice and the vote of the Commonwealth is diminished until Ms. Merrick is seated,” Virginia counsel Jonathan Benner told the court. “The authority of this body is under a cloud.”

But Judge David S. Schell denied the state’s request, leaving Martire’s seat vacant.

Martire’s lawyers argued that Merrick could not be allowed to take a seat on the board because Martire’s seat is not vacant. “Ms. Merrick cannot be appointed to that seat if Mr. Martire is holding that seat,” said Kevin Hodges, an attorney representing Martire.

Monday’s hearing in state court, initiated by the authority, was intended to identify the best procedure for addressing the dispute between Martire and McDonnell.

Because the airports authority spans Virginia, Maryland and the District, Martire’s lawyers argued, McDonnell’s relationship to the airports authority should be dictated by federal law. Virginia’s lawyers countered that McDonnell’s powers, including the governor’s influence over the authority, are clearly defined in the state’s laws. Exactly how these laws differ from each other in the first place is also a source of contention.

Martire’s case highlights the authority’s broader legitimacy issues, as its board has faced accusations of nepotism and inappropriate expenditures in recent months. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week that he had “serious questions about how the board has operated.”

Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, in a telephone interview, voiced similarly strong criticisms of the board. “This is not news to anyone that the airports authority is dysfunctional,” Connaughton said. “We need to see some concrete reforms.”

For Connaughton, a member of McDonnell’s cabinet, getting rid of Martire is the first step toward cleaning up the authority.

“The governor removed him because of his abuse of ethical issues,” Connaughton said. He cited Martire’s “use of public funds for travel and other expenses, as well as questions regarding various issues that have arisen that have undermined that public’s trust in this organization.”

Martire’s lawyers say their client has done nothing wrong. They contend that he was targeted for partisan reasons.

“He happens to be the only voice that has working knowledge of construction and labor issues,” said Hodges.

Bogged down in a lawsuit, Hodges argued, Martire’s opponents were “hoping to run the clock off the rest of Mr. Martire’s term. Martire is vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

Before his removal, Martire had clashed with McDonnell over whether the project should include a “project labor agreement,” or PLA, in the second phase of construction of the Silver Line. A PLA would have required that many workers be hired at union hiring halls. Martire ultimately joined 10 of 11 other board members in voting to drop the PLA after McDonnell threatened to withdraw his support for the Silver Line if it remained in place.

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