Mame Reiley, the prominent Virginia Democrat whose six-figure job advising the chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has fueled criticism of the agency, says she was surprised by the outcry over her new post.

In her first public comments, Reiley, who was a longtime member of MWAA’s board before resigning in February for health reasons, said she is uniquely qualified for her $180,000 job with the airports authority.

“I bring a lot to the table — I have a very diversified skill set, both in business and on the production side,” she said Friday in a telephone interview.

Reiley, a former chairman of the MWAA board, has been battling breast cancer since 2010, so her resignation was not altogether surprising. But her departure from the board came at a critical time for the MWAA, with the authority building Metro’s new Silver Line.

The $6 billion project to extend Metro to Dulles International Airport is one of the region’s biggest infrastructure projects, and Reiley was one of its biggest champions, chairing the MWAA board committee overseeing it.

In a Feb. 15 letter to Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), Reiley wrote that “due to a health challenge I currently face, it has become abundantly clear to me that my priorities need to shift so that I may concentrate my time on my health, my family, and my work.”

What did not become public for months was that soon after leaving the board, Reiley started serving as a senior adviser to the MWAA’s CEO, Jack Potter. It was a post that allowed her to continue working on the Dulles Rail project and that provided her with health insurance.

In an interview, Potter said that he decided to hire Reiley and he determined how much she would be paid. She is one of 18 MWAA employees who are paid at least $180,000, according to the agency. Board members are not paid.

But exactly how her hiring came about and who else played a role in the decision remains unclear. MWAA correspondence obtained by The Washington Post through a public-records request show that Potter was conscious of how Reiley’s hiring might be viewed, at one point emphasizing to Reiley that she was being hired for her expertise, not because of her board service.

The sensitivity to perceptions is not surprising.

In a state divided over what its transportation priorities should be, the Silver Line’s considerable cost — and its symbolic importance as an investment in mass transit — has made the project a contentious issue for Virginia’s political leaders.

The MWAA’ s recurring weaknesses in corporate governance have only heightened critics’ concerns about the authority’s oversight of the Silver Line, and indeed McDonnell has been pushing for greater influence with the MWAA.

The authority, which operates Dulles and Reagan National airports and the Dulles Toll Road, is an interstate compact whose governing board is made up of members from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. It has 1,400 employees.

In recent months, disclosures of no-bid contracts, expensive board member travel and other issues have fed the political drumbeat about the MWAA. The Washington Examiner report about Reiley’s hiring provided more fodder for critics, and a scathing letter last month from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other officials appeared to validate many of the concerns.

The authority has already moved to cancel no-bid contracts awarded to former board members, and on Wednesday, the board is expected to take up a series of changes to its ethics and travel policies.

But in the case of Reiley, 59, it remains unclear how surprising her hiring should have been to officials involved with the MWAA.

A senior member of McDonnell’s administration said he was aware that Reiley would be working at the authority after her resignation.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton said his office was “informed, not asked” that the authority “intended to give her a position that would qualify her for medical benefits,” although he could not recall who told him that. But when reports of how much she was being paid surfaced, Connaughton said he was shocked.

Reiley said her understanding was that elected officials were aware of, and had signed off on, her taking a job with the MWAA after she stepped down from the board.

But the response to the Examiner’s report was surprise in some quarters, which surprised Reiley. “I’m shocked that they were shocked,” she said.

Reiley said she assumed elected officials knew the details of her agreement with the MWAA, including what she would be doing and how much she would be paid.

A spokesman for Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has been outspoken in his criticism of the MWAA, said that Wolf “was never aware” of what Reiley was to be paid, what her title was or that she would have a severance package.

“He was told that [Reiley] was gravely ill and stepping down and this was to help her have life insurance,” said spokesman Dan Scandling.

MWAA officials have declined to make Reiley’s employment agreement available, leaving details of her pact with the agency shrouded in secrecy.

But more than a dozen e-mails, obtained by The Post through a public-records request, include exchanges among Reiley, Potter and human-resources specialists at the MWAA detail some of the negotiations that went into the former board chairman’s subsequent employment. The e-mails include discussion of what her severance package would include and whether she would be able to continue to receive benefits accorded to former board members.

“Thanks Warren,” Reiley wrote to Warren Reisig, the MWAA’s benefits manager. “As discussed, under 3 B Fringe Benefit can we add something like, ‘as a former member of the Board of Directors (3 years as Chairman) the executive will enjoy any courtesies extended to former Directors.’ ”

Potter then weighed in.

“Mame, Per our conversation, we need to make this as plain vanilla a contract as possible,” Potter wrote. “You are being hired because of your ability to perform the work, not because of your Board association. Courtesies extended to former Directors is primarily a Board office activity and do not change because you work for the Authority.”

MWAA spokesman David Mould said benefits given to former board members include free parking at both airports and invitations to airport events.

Reiley said she had contemplated stepping down from the board due to health reasons and had discussed the matter with other board members. She said last winter that a fellow board member, whom she declined to identify, suggested she seek a position with the authority.

She said she has enjoyed her work at the authority because it offers her flexibility as she undergoes treatment for cancer. According to details of Reiley’s employment agreement outlined in the e-mails, she may work from home, but also has an office at MWAA headquarters at Reagan National Airport.

It is not clear how many board members were aware that Reiley was taking a job with the authority, since the board was not responsible for approving her employment agreement.

The Post’s records request also sought e-mail exchanges between board members regarding Reiley’s employment. MWAA officials said they could not provide this information because board members use personal e-mail addresses to communicate with each other about board business, making it impossible for MWAA officials to track such correspondence.

Potter praised Reiley’s work at the authority, saying she has played a key role in finding ways to generate non-aviation related revenue.