D.C. area airports board bitterly divided in search for new executive

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:00 AM

The authority that oversees two of the Washington area's main airports and a multibillion-dollar project to extend Metrorail to Dulles International has become bitterly divided over who its next chief executive ought to be.

At stake are the operations of Dulles and Reagan National airports, the Dulles Toll Road and management of the massive rail project, which already has been criticized for spiraling cost estimates.

The leading candidate has had an impressive rise in the transit industry. However, critics question his ability to manage money because of personal financial problems, while at least one supporter alleges that racism against the African American man motivates some of the opposition.

Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. started out as a train conductor in New York City. He became a top transit executive in Atlanta and San Francisco, where he is chief of the Municipal Transportation Agency .

By all accounts, he's a charming, charismatic figure.

But for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, he's also become a divisive one, exposing rifts on the board over what type of leader should hold a role so critical to the region's economy.

Questions were raised about Ford's financial judgment after board members learned that he owes back taxes, according to sources close to the search who would talk only on the condition of anonymity. Other concerns have centered on his use of corporate credit cards and a lavish party he threw for the transit authority in Atlanta.

Sources said board members are also dissastisfied that they did not learn of these issues until after Ford's initial interview. Some blame Ford for not volunteering the information; others blame the board's search firm for not flagging it sooner. The search firm, Maryland-based Krauthamer & Associates, did not return messages seeking comment Friday.

Ford's candidacy has been further muddied by the narrow split among board members. In an informal poll, seven voted for him and six against. One vote in favor came from a member who has attended only one meeting in two years; his most recent absence was because he is stuck in a hotel in Ivory Coast because of post-election political unrest.

In response to concerns about Ford's candidacy and the selection process, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) last week asked the Government Accountability Office to review the operations of the authority and its oversight of the rail project that Wolf helped revive in 2008, after it appeared that federal assistance would not come through.

The authority has had to answer questions from federal transit officials about the cost and management of the 23-mile Metrorail extension, now projected to cost as much as $6.6 billion. Wolf said that whoever runs the authority "ought to be a person with honesty and integrity, who has the capability to build the rail on time and on budget - and to operate two airports that are the lifeblood of this region."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ford said he should be judged on his overall professional track record.

"All of my projects come in on schedule, within their budget," he said, pointing to a project to extend light rail in San Francisco. "On a professional level, there's never been a question of my financial acumen or ability."

Experienced candidate

The airports authority is an enormous operation, a self-supporting entity with 1,400 employees and a $1.9 billion budget. The search for a new leader began last spring after chief executive James E. Bennett announced that he would retire after 14 years. He has been replaced temporarily by E. Lynn Hampton, the chief financial officer since 1989, who intends to retire after a new executive is named.

The 13-member board is a regional affair, with appointments from the president and the governments of Virginia, Maryland and the District. Board chairman Charles D. Snelling, a federal appointee from Pennsylvania, and his colleagues contacted by The Post said the selection process was intended to be a confidential personnel matter.

According to sources close to the search, the board's preliminary vote allowed it to move ahead informally last week, offering Ford a salary of $375,000 - a figure that would make Ford one of the highest-paid airport executives in the nation. Bennett, who retired last spring, was paid $332,750, and some on the board consider Ford's offer too high, while others view it as necessary to attract top-flight talent.

The board's monthly meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, and supporters are pressing to take a formal vote then.

Those who support Ford, 49, are attracted to his personal story and resume. He earned a bachelor's degree from Mercer University in 2005, after ascending to the top job in Atlanta's transit agency. Supporters point to his deep experience managing diverse transit systems with buses, rail, complex finances and construction projects. Rail experience, they say, will be critical in managing the high-stakes Metro project. His qualifications, they say, outweigh concerns about personal financial troubles that he is working to address.

Those who oppose Ford question his financial judgment and character, saying he was not immediately upfront about taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service. Ford interviewed for Metro's top job last year but was not selected as one of the three finalists. D.C. government officials thought he was a strong candidate to lead the city's transportation department but decided that his services would be too expensive.

Ford made a favorable impression on airports authority board members during his first interview. But after the interview, new information emerged from a more extensive background check. Records show at least $75,000 in liens filed against Ford by the IRS and the state of California last year for unpaid taxes.

During his 2000-2005 tenure as general manager at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, Ford was also criticized by some state legislators and members of his board for using a corporate credit card for personal expenses that he later reimbursed, including for cigar humidors at Chops restaurant. He also took flak for routinely dining at high-end steakhouses and for hosting an $84,000 holiday party for MARTA, according to reports in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

"If we'd had all this stuff before the first interview, I don't think he would have come back for a second interview. He snowed us," said a source close to the search.

When objections were raised about Ford, racial tensions emerged, according to sources, with one of three African American board members accusing the members opposed to Ford of being racist. Opponents said it was not a question of race, but one of character and competence.

Bill Moseley, who served as chairman of the Atlanta agency board during Ford's tenure, called him a hands-on leader who helped professionalize the agency. Ford dined at steakhouses like Morton's, Moseley said, because the "leaders and people he was trying to influence were there. That's where he needed to be."

No 'improper payments'

Moseley said that criticism of Ford was largely the result of newly elected Republican lawmakers looking for an easy political target and that the holiday party was intended to boost morale among employees after a period of layoffs.

Ford reimbursed the agency for $10,804 in personal charges during his five years, and later paid an additional $1,000 for charges identified as personal by an internal audit. The transit authority's review found "no illegal or improper payments" to Ford, according to documents.

At San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency, Ford is one of the city's highest-paid public officials, earning $309,000, according to his spokesman. His personal financial troubles began, Ford said, when he agreed to defer annual raises and bonuses because of the city's budget woes.

With two children in college, Ford said he cashed in some retirement funds to help cover tuition. The early-withdrawal penalties "created a larger tax burden for my family than we expected," he said. For a time, Ford said he also had trouble renting out the home he still owns in Georgia.

"This current economic climate has had negative impacts on everyone," Ford said.

The state of California lien of $11,939 has been resolved, Ford said, and "we've been working for over a year and a half to try to work out a satisfactory arrangement with the IRS."

Ford would be paid $70,000 in deferred compensation from his contract at the time of his departure, according to his spokesman.

Ford's financial problems were no secret to Tom Nolan, the chairman of the board that oversees the San Francisco agency, but he considered them personal. Nolan and San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd praised Ford for navigating the city's politics, budget troubles and for his stewardship of the final stages of a light-rail extension and the early stages of a $1.6 billion Central Subway project that includes 1.3 miles of underground rail.

"He's been criticized for his high salary, but in my mind he's worth every penny of it," Nolan said. "If in fact he goes to Washington, we're going to have to get someone almost just like him."

Tom Radulovich, who runs a transportation advocacy group and is a member of the board of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, said Ford may be eager to move on. Because of a lack of political support, Ford was largely constrained from improving what Radulovich's group, Liveable City, considers the poorly planned Central Subway project.

"If projects are off to a strong start, he'll hopefully keep them moving. But if there are flaws in the planning or execution, his tendency is to want to please his bosses and deliver good news," Radulovich said.

A close vote

After months of reviewing more than 100 applications, the airports authority board narrowed the field of candidates to 10, and then four finalists. When it came time for the board to take the informal vote that would allow the panel to extend a tentative offer, four members cast their ballots through a proxy. Only one, Mamadi Diane, had not participated in interviewing candidates, according to sources, although he received background materials by e-mail.

Diane, who was first appointed by former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, travels overseas often for his international trade business and has attended just one meeting since 2009, according to board records. Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty tried to replace Diane, whose term expired in January 2009, and another board member, former D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford. But Fenty's efforts got caught up in political wrangling with the council.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, the former council chairman, has nominated a replacement for Diane.

Diane said in an e-mail Saturday that he is confined to a hotel in Ivory Coast and is unable to leave because of resistance to seating a new president whom Diane supports. It was uncertain whether Diane would be able to return home in time for a formal vote, which requires members to cast ballots in person.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who has not been involved in the selection process but helped obtain federal funding for the Dulles rail project, said he was most troubled by the preliminary vote.

"If there is a leading candidate based on the support of an absentee member who attended just one meeting in years, boy, that would be of concern to me. I don't think that's a confidence-building measure."

Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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