New policies may change MWAA executives’ travel practices

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that the authority was about to consider a new travel policy. That policy was approved in March. This version has been corrected.


The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority meets at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in this file photo. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
April 16, 2013

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has earned praise from Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for changes to the authority’s travel and ethics policies after revelations that some board members spent lavishly on plane tickets and meals.

Documents detailing the expenses of top MWAA executives, however, show that some of them have similarly pricey tastes and, under new policies, may have to cut back on their business travel and meal expenses.

During the 15-month period covered by the documents, at least four top MWAA officials — the vice presidents for air-service development, finance and business administration and the now-former vice president for information and telecommunication services — each filed more than $10,000 in expenses. One MWAA vice president purchased a plane ticket that cost $12,000, according to the records, which were obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act. By contrast, John E. “Jack” Potter, the MWAA’s president and chief executive, spent just under $3,500 during the time covered by the documents.

None of the expenses appear to violate the MWAA policies in place at the time, but they add new context to the controversy that erupted last summer over the expenses of another top MWAA official.

Then-MWAA board member Dennis Martire was criticized by McDonnell (R) and by federal investigators for travel to two international conferences, including a plane ticket that cost more than $9,000.

Martire, a labor leader, had been appointed to the board by a Democrat. The revelations about his travel came as McDonnell and others were seeking to exert greater influence over the MWAA, which is overseeing construction of Metro’s new Silver Line to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County.

None of Martire’s expenses was found to violate MWAA policies, and he said the criticism was a politically motivated attempt to remove him from the board. Martire filed a lawsuit challenging McDonnell’s actions, but after months of legal wrangling, he dropped the suit and agreed to leave the board.

That and other issues raised in a federal inspector general’s report led the MWAA board to tighten the authority’s policies. A new travel policy was approved in December, and a new business expense policy was approved in March.

The Post’s review of expense reports shows why the new policies may mark a change for not only board members but frequent-flier managers as well. In most cases, money was spent to attend industry conferences, training or meetings tied to the authority’s operations. The authority does not limit attendance at such functions, officials said.

Mark Treadaway, who as vice president for air-service development is responsible for recruiting airlines to Dulles and Reagan National, spent more than $98,000 during the 15-month period. About $70,000 of that was for airfare, including four international trips, each of which cost more than $10,000.

George Ellis, the authority’s former vice president for information and telecommunications services, who left the MWAA in April 2012, spent $10,000 during a six-day trip to London, where he was scheduled to speak at a conference — twice the amount estimated on a travel authorization he was required to file before the trip. In December, Ellis filed a $10 million defamation suit against the authority, saying it breached a 2012 severance agreement.

Through his attorney, Geoff Gitner, Ellis said that his assistant underestimated the cost of the hotel and other expenses and noted that they ultimately were approved.

The hundreds of pages of documents detail expenses for MWAA’s top officials over a 15-month period from July 2011 to October 2012. The Post’s request sought documents as far back as January 2011, but MWAA said the reports covering the first six months of 2011 were were stored off-site and that The Post would have to pay $1,300 to have them retrieved.

The reports detail spending on everything from seat upgrades to snacks. Not all reports were complete — some failed to include receipts for meal expenses and in other instances, the receipts submitted did not match the amount for which an employee was reimbursed. Expenses for two senior executives, Elmer Tippett, vice president of public safety, and Frank Holly, vice president of engineering, were inadvertently left out by MWAA officials. In some cases, the cost of plane fare was not included in the reports because it was paid directly by the authority. As a result, some reports may underestimate the cost of MWAA officials’ travel and expenses for the time period.

The Post review found that some MWAA executives booked travel on short notice or changed itineraries at the last minute, in some cases doubling the cost of a plane ticket. The expenses also reveal some of the more incidental tastes of MWAA’s top officials. One was partial to oysters — ordering several platters during a trip to a conference in New Orleans. Another vice president ordered a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, for which the authority reimbursed him $13.50.

None of the expenses detailed in the documents appear to violate the MWAA policies in place at the time, which said that if daily expenses for one traveler exceeded $50 when in North America and $100 when on international trips, the employee “may be required to justify the expenses.” And some of the expenses would be allowed under the authority’s revamped policies.

But the documents show that in several cases, procedures intended to ensure compliance were not followed. In those cases, trips were booked before travel authorizations were approved. According to the policy in place at the time, “Hotels and transportation may be reserved only AFTER the Travel Authorization has been approved.”

Andrew Rountree, the MWAA’s chief financial officer, said the individual may have received verbal authorization. Treadaway added that other forms, besides the authority’s official one, could be used, although he said such an exception is not in the policy.

Treadaway spent the most of any MWAA executive, although he said he traveled less than normal during that period. Whether Treadaway’s bosses were aware of his travels and their cost is not clear. Under MWAA’s previous travel policy, Treadaway had the authority to approve his own trips, but the new policy changed that.

“It’s my job,” Treadaway said. “My job is to travel the world and bring in airlines. It’s kind of hard to do that sitting at your desk in Washington.”

He noted that as a result of one of those trips, Brussels Airlines will start five-days-a-week service in June between the Belgian capital and Dulles.

The Post sought the expense information to examine the workings of the MWAA after recent criticism of the authority. In addition to overseeing the rail project, the authority also manages operations at Dulles and Reagan National airports, as well as the Dulles Toll Road. The MWAA has 1,400 employees and a nearly $2 billion annual budget, which is funded primarily by rents, concessions and passenger and landing fees.

MWAA board members were criticized last year in a federal inspector general’s interim report for expensing lavish meals and for booking plane tickets with little notice. MWAA executives ate well, but meal expenses, for the most part, generally fell within the limits of the policy then in place.

Others who spent more than $10,000 during the time period were Rountree and Steve Baker, the MWAA’s vice president for business administration. Calls to Baker’s office seeking comment were directed to the MWAA’s press office, which said he was unavailable.

Many of Rountree’s expenses were for plane trips to New York to conduct business related to financial matters. Rountree made at least eight plane trips to New York over the 15-month time period, which he said is an average amount of travel for him. On a trip to San Diego, Baker changed his itinerary, doubling the cost of his plane ticket to $1,312.80. Treadaway rebooked a ticket for a trip to Germany two days before his departure, nearly doubling the cost of the flight to $10,550.

Potter, who joined the authority in June 2011, was among the most frugal of the MWAA’s executives. While other members of his staff flew — even for one-day trips, Potter drove a company car for meetings in New York. His restaurant choices included Denny’s, Applebee’s and Schlotzsky’s Deli, where he had a reuben on rye. Potter did dine at finer establishments, but those meals generally included board members or other authority officials.

Potter recorded $3,482.49 in expenses during the time period reviewed, including $1,451 for plane tickets to conferences in Salt Lake City and Denver. Because of a last-minute change to his Denver itinerary, the authority paid an additional $459.20 for a one-way ticket back to Washington.

MWAA officials said Potter was not available for comment.

The revised rules, approved in December, place limits on first-class travel and the amount of money MWAA staff and board members can spend on meals. Where the previous policy offered general limits, the revised policy limits them to a $71-a-day meal allotment — the same as federal employees.

Other vice presidents also were frugal. Paul Malandrino Jr., who oversees Reagan National Airport, spent $128.75 during the 15-month period reviewed. Unlike other MWAA vice presidents, he did not attend any conferences. Most of his expenses were for parking and meals at job-related functions.

“For our employees to deliver the kind of services we need to deliver, our employees are allowed to attend conferences and trainings as our budget allows,’’ Rountree said. “It is a business necessity.”

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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