How not to choose a executive

Saturday, February 19, 2011; 6:30 PM

MORE THAN seven months into the search for a new chief executive to lead the agency that runs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, there are troubling questions about the candidate who has emerged as the front-runner; about racial tensions among board members in charge of the decision; and about the role played by an absentee board member.

This is no way to run a railroad, let alone the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees billions of dollars in contracts and 42 million passengers a year. The agency, which is also building the 23-mile extension of Metrorail to Dulles and beyond, is a massive enterprise, crucial to the region's future. That's why it's worrying that its search for a new president and chief executive seems so dysfunctional.

Sources tell us the leading candidate is Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., chief of the transit agency in San Francisco and former chief of Atlanta's transit agency. Mr. Ford, 49, has an impressive background. Starting out as a train conductor in New York City, he worked his way up - mostly without benefit of a college degree, which he obtained a few years ago - to become a prominent executive with broad experience in bus and train transit operations, construction and finance.

However, Mr. Ford has no apparent background in aviation; at one point, he was actually under consideration to run Metro. More disconcerting, he has shown questionable financial judgement. At least $75,000 in liens for unpaid taxes were filed against him last year by the IRS and the state of California, according to records. (Sources said these troubles were tied partly to compensation he expected but did not receive.)

Moreover, as transit chief in Atlanta in the early 2000s, he was dogged by questions about his routine use of corporate credit cards for personal expenses. In fairness to Mr. Ford, he did reimburse the agency for those personal expenses, either as they occurred or in a later settlement, and the practice seemed not to have violated official policy. Still, a number of transit agency board members in Atlanta, as well as Georgia state lawmakers overseeing the agency, thought he had acted improperly by mingling personal and business expenses, according to a 2006 article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Through a spokesperson, Mr. Ford declined to comment, citing the airports board's policy of confidentiality in its selection process.

Mr. Ford emerged as the leading candidate to lead the airports based on his background as well as a strong interview. But some board members, upon learning of his tax liens, felt that he had not been sufficiently forthcoming about them; they backed a competing candidate with strong aviation credentials. We're told the resulting split on the board took on racial overtones, with members who opposed Mr. Ford, who is African American, being openly accused of racism by at least one black board member.

That's regrettable. Equally regrettable is that Mr. Ford appears to have emerged as the top candidate based in part on the absentee support of Mamadi Diane, a board member who has attended just one board meeting since 2008, according to board records. And it's not clear that Mr. Diane, who is said to spend much of his time overseas, has met or spoken with any of the leading candidates. He could not be reached for comment.

The authority's board will not vote formally to fill the job for a number of weeks. When it does, there is a strong likelihood it will cast a unanimous vote and project an image of consensus for the new leader, whoever it is. Still, the process thus far does not inspire confidence. Let's hope that the new chief, once he or she arrives, manages to do so.

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