Travel records in disarray for authority overseeing Reagan and Dulles airports

November 5, 2011

Travel records this year for the authority that oversees Reagan National and Dulles International airports show reports in disarray, sloppy bookkeeping for some expenses and an instance in which the authority overpaid reimbursements to one board member.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is also overseeing the $6 billion Dulles rail project, has come under increased scrutiny about whether it is transparent enough and how it is monitoring the construction of the Metrorail extension.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general is auditing the authority, a move requested by lawmakers worried about a lack of oversight.

A Washington Post review of travel records for MWAA’s 13-member board, which are not examined by an external auditor, according to a spokeswoman, revealed errors that had not been caught by the authority’s internal system of checks and balances.

The board spent about $96,000, or about 37 percent of its annual travel budget, in the first two quarters of this year.

After inquiries from The Post, the authority revised some travel records several times. In one instance, Quince Brinkley, vice president and secretary to MWAA’s board, reviewed a file to search for a missing expense report page and said he found that the authority had reimbursed board member Dennis L. Martire for $1,150 more than it should have for a trip he took to an aviation conference in Cagliari, Italy, in May.

Brinkley said Martire was wrongly reimbursed because of a “clerical error.” He said an administrative assistant double-counted receipts for hotels, taxis and other fees.

“We should have caught this,” Brinkley said.

He said there are three checks on expenses, including the administrative assistant, the director of board operations and the finance department. He said he double-checks complicated expense reports, such as those that involve several board members.

Brinkley said he contacted Martire last week when he discovered the error and told him that he needed to reimburse the authority. Martire sent the authority a check Thursday.

“I trusted they reimbursed me for my actual expenses,” Martire wrote in an e-mail. “A mistake was made by MWAA staff not me.”

According to Brinkley, two staffers process expense reimbursements, which are reviewed by the finance department and are checked every three or four years by an internal audit. The most recent one was conducted last year, he said. There are no external audits of board travel expenses, according to Tara Hamilton, MWAA’s spokeswoman.

That lack of independent supervision concerns some, such as Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who, along with Iowa Rep. Tom Latham (R), requested the inspector general’s audit this year.

“They should be held accountable,” said Wolf, who was concerned about spending on the Dulles rail project. “They oversee taxpayer money. They determine the economic viability of the airport, and that affects the economic impact of the region. I think people are losing confidence in the airports authority. There must be total and complete openness and accountability.”

According to sources familiar with the audit, the inspector general is examining a wide range of practices, including how the authority contracts services and hires employees and how the board operates. The audit is expected to be completed in the spring.

Reimbursement issues

Members to the board are appointed as representatives of Maryland, Virginia, the District and the president, and they serve six-year terms.

They live across the Washington region, and the three federal board members are required to be registered to vote in another state. The positions are not paid, but members are reimbursed for travel and lodging to the board’s two, one-day-a-month meetings or workshops. Those who live in the District area typically don’t submit expenses for travel to monthly meetings, Brinkley said.

The travel records for the first two quarters of this year had other problems. The airports authority provided three sets of reports for Martire’s trip to the Airports Council International three-day conference in Italy before officials said the records were finally accurate.

The authority reimbursed Martire $10,586 for the trip. That amount does not include the overpayment. His business-class airline ticket cost $9,508 including taxes, and he spent $1,078 for hotel, airport transfers and food, the records show.

Brinkley said he had one of his staffers check for cheaper rates to Italy and found two flights priced between $8,000 and $8,500 round-trip, not including taxes. Board members are encouraged to “make every effort to secure the most economic and cost effective means of travel,” according to their travel policy.

In another instance, the airports authority paid more than $10,000 for four board members to attend the 25th annual aviation issues conference of the American Association of Airport Executives in Hawaii, although three stayed home. Part of the money — $3,450.39 — was for nonrefundable room deposits. Robert Brown, who serves as the finance chairman, H.R. Crawford and former board member Leonard Manning didn’t go on the trip, Brink­ley said. When the rooms were booked, the hotel required payment for two nights, he said.

Brown canceled because of “work commitments.” Crawford’s wife planned to go on the trip with him but became ill, and Crawford canceled the trip. Manning “became aware of the likelihood that he would not be reappointed to the board so he decided that it was no longer necessary to attend the conference,” said an e-mail from Brinkley and Hamilton.

Problematic accounting

The airport authority’s travel reports also revealed problematic accounting of a $10,740.32 trip for the board’s chairman, Charles D. Snelling, to attend the Hawaii conference. Snelling spent nine days in Hawaii, including five days at the conference, according to MWAA’s records.

But the airports authority later provided a second set of documents with different numbers.

The revised records showed Snelling’s Hawaii trip cost $7,428.34. Snelling stayed an extra day in Hawaii, Brinkley said, and paid $564.97 of his own money for hotel and meals.

The difference in the cost, Brink­ley said, was because Snelling visited the District for meetings at a cost of $2,747.01 a few days before going to Hawaii. But the District area expenses were lumped in with his Hawaii trip on the expense records.

Brinkley called it some “classification errors on our part.”

The authority said Snelling has attended the conference every year since 2005.

“If you want to stay up on national affairs in aviation, you go,” Snelling said. “Plus, you go to meet and talk with the movers and shakers who are important to the industry.”

Records show the airports authority also paid $600 for MWAA board member Shirley Robinson Hall to fly from Martha’s Vineyard to attend a special board meeting in Virginia in June.

She declined to comment and referred questions on her travel to the MWAA board office. Brinkley said that Hall was on a personal trip before the meeting, “so we paid for her travel to come back to Washington.”

The special board meeting was held in executive session and dealt with a personnel issue, according to an agenda of the meeting. The board’s policy says it will reimburse members their expenses “incurred in attending the meetings of the Authority.”

Other travel expense records showed that Crawford and Manning went on an Ethio­pian Airlines inaugural flight in November. There are three sets of records concerning this trip: One lists expenses at $2,619, and another totals costs at $2,918. The airports authority said that the lower amount did not include some hotel and taxi expenses.

When asked for more detailed reports, the airports authority provided a third set of records that showed the airline tickets for the two cost $8,779. The two were reimbursed for the flights in the fourth quarter of 2010.

It was the airline’s first nonstop flight from Dulles to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

“It is our obligation to develop relationships,” Crawford said. “It is the kind of thing board of directors are supposed to do.”

Revised guidelines

After a 2008 Washington Post analysis of the board’s travel back to 2005 showed that some members had billed first-class airfare and hotel rooms beyond conference dates, MWAA established more formal guidelines on its travel policy.

The board’s new guidelines say the authority pays for board members to attend airport-related conferences, inaugural flights of airlines, educational training, meetings with attorneys, financial advisers and consultants for MWAA, and events where a board member serves as a panelist, moderator or speaker.

Board members’ expenses for airlines, hotels, taxis, car rentals, mileage, meals and meeting fees are covered. Members can fly coach or business class, although they are “encouraged to fly coach,” the guidelines state.

The airport authority’s travel budget is $260,000 for this year. Last year, the board’s travel budget was the same amount. Board members spent $179,401 — of which $68,277 was for commuting to board and committee meetings. The rest: $25,193 for travel for airport-related work and $85,931 to attend conferences. Brinkley said the expense policy is overseen by the board’s executive and governance committee.

The top two spenders this year on the board for travel are Snelling and Brown.

Snelling has spent $35,927 — mostly in mileage, hotel and meals while attending board and committee meetings. He typically drives from his home in Fogelsville, Pa., and stays at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City with his wife, the airports authority said. He has “meals with his wife at the hotel,” officials said.

Brown, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, typically flies from Cleveland to Reagan for meetings and has spent $31,295 in the two quarters.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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