Ray LaHood to airports authority: Reform now

Brendan Hoffman/GETTY IMAGES - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood listens during a news conference at the Department of Transportation on August 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. LaHood addressed an error by an air traffic controller on Tuesday that nearly resulted in a mid-air collision between three planes.

The agency that oversees the region’s two largest airports and is building the multibillion-dollar Metro extension to Dulles has lost the public’s trust and must immediately implement reforms, the nation’s top transportation official, two governors and the D.C. mayor said Tuesday.

The unusually strong rebuke of the ethics and judgment of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) came in a letter to the board from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray. The four officials collectively have oversight over the authority.

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In the letter, the officials expressed concern that the authority “conducts much of its business behind closed doors, awards many of its contracts on a sole-source basis, and is in desperate need of reform.”

The letter comes as members of the agency’s board are also questioning its practices. Three members have sent board Chairman Michael A. Curto a letter urging reforms, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Washington Post.

The three — Thomas M. Davis III, Frank M. Conner III and Todd A. Stottlemyer — said in their
Aug. 9 letter that the board spends “very little time on the real business of the Authority and all of our time on a variety of issues that are unrelated to our mission.”

The “unwillingness” of the board to change “hinders our ability to effectively complete the many significant initiatives for which we are responsible,” they wrote. “Equally importantly we have little or no moral authority or credibility in managing the Dulles Rail Project.”

Curto said he wouldn’t comment publicly on an internal document. But he and Jack Potter, the authority’s president and chief executive, said they have begun to institute the changes called for by LaHood.

“We are mindful that public trust is essential to the Authority’s success in performing its missions of operating Reagan National and Dulles International Airports, operating the Dulles Toll Road and building the Metrorail Silver Line,” they said in a written statement. “We acknowledge the concerns of the Secretary of Transportation, our elected officials and others, and we are committed to restoring public trust wherever it is lost and to earning and assuring the confidence of the people we serve.”

Potter and Curto said that the board is ending or has ended all contracts with former board members and is getting the services those members performed through competitive bidding.

But after issuing the statement, the board could not provide a list of contracts with ex-board members that it already had canceled or is canceling. “We’re still verifying some information,” said spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs.

The MWAA has been under increasing pressure to change how it operates amid a series of damaging reports of lavish travel, a botched search for a new chief executive and the contracts to former board members, all of which have prompted some elected officials to label the authority out of control and “dysfunctional.”

“We are outraged by ongoing reports describing questionable dealings, including the award of numerous lucrative no-bid contracts to former Board members and employees and the employment of former Board members,” the letter from LaHood and the elected officials said.

LaHood has taken an unusual hands-on approach in dealing with the MWAA, which is responsible for building the Silver Line rail extension to Dulles International Airport, one of the largest construction projects in the country. LaHood has intervened in a number of instances to ensure that the rail project — considered vital to the region’s economy — moves forward as scheduled.

Last month, LaHood appointed an accountability officer, who reports directly to him, to monitor MWAA operations. This month, LaHood also met with Gray (D), McDonnell (R) and O’Malley (D), who appoint board members, to discuss changing the membership of the 13-person board. The board has members from Virginia, Maryland, the District and the federal government.

An interim report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general released in May criticized the board for spending lavishly on entertainment and travel and cited numerous instances of no-bid contract awards.

Subsequent reports in the Washington Examiner highlighted several instances of contracts given to former board members as well as the hiring of former board member Mame Reiley a day after she resigned for health reasons.

As of Tuesday, Reiley remained a full-time authority employee working as a senior adviser to Potter, Gibbs said.

In their statement, Potter and Curto said the board would strengthen and clarify rules on hiring ex-board members. While that review is ongoing, Gibbs said, “no decision has been made” on Reiley. In their letter, LaHood and the three elected officials did not mention Reiley by name but said one immediate reform should be to “terminate all existing employment relationships with former Board members.”

In response to the inspector general’s report, Curto said he suspended all international travel for board members and wants the board to give him authority to approve all trips. He said that the board will vote next month on new ethics, conflict of interest and travel policies, as well as rules on hiring of former board members.

Potter said he has stopped the use of an exemption that allowed certain contracts to be awarded without competitive bidding. The inspector general’s report found that the MWAA awarded more than $220 million in contracts using the exemption.

“We appreciate that MWAA has put out a statement saying they intend to respond positively to the letter sent today, but actions speak louder than words,’’ said Sean T. Connaughton, Virginia’s secretary of transportation.

 
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