Metro board leaders on Thursday proposed requiring future ethics investigations be made public, after the secrecy surrounding the recent inquiry into former board chairman Jack Evans drew widespread scorn.
The panel acted at one of several committee meetings where board members also expressed shock over the problems plaguing construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Members predicted Metro would not be able to begin passenger service on the extension — which will bring service to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County — in July 2020 as the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been saying.
MWAA is managing construction of the rail project, but it will be operated and managed by Metro once completed.
Metro’s inspector general has been conducting an independent review of work on the $5.8 billion project since problems surfaced last year, and he is expected to release a report later this year. However, recent discoveries were so concerning that he issued two management alerts last week so that the problems could be addressed immediately.
“That’s a very comprehensive and shocking presentation,” board member Michael Goldman said following a presentation Thursday from chief operating officer Joseph Leader, who reviewed a dozen quality problems with the project.
Goldman said the report created a “dark and foreboding cloud” over the proposed July 2020 start date.
Alternate board member Tom Bulger said the array of troubles reminded him of the problems with the ill-fated Silver Spring Transit Center.
“This is deja vu for me. . . but this is way bigger than what we tackled at Silver Spring,” Bulger said.
In another development, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn predicted the state would release $42 million in funding it has been withholding from Metro by the end of the month. The money has been withheld because of a dispute with the agency’s management.
Rahn, who joined the Metro board in July, said Metro had met some of the conditions the state set to receive the money but that it would take longer to release an additional $13 million that the state is withholding.
At the start of Rahn’s tenure on the board, he sent a strongly worded letter to General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld complaining the agency was “stonewalling” on audits and other issues. The state withheld $55.6 million in capital funds as a result.
The board resolved one of Maryland’s concerns Thursday by approving a one-year capital funding plan to replace one that expired in June. It is set to resolve another concern at its Sept. 26 meeting by approving a dedicated funding agreement with Maryland.
“At that point, we can release the $42 million from the dedicated funds,” Rahn said.
The remaining $13 million that Maryland is withholding depends on resolving disagreements over audits.
Rahn said he hoped to solve that problem “soon,” and Wiedefeld said that “we’re moving along very nicely on that.”
But the discussion of the ethics committee and its work consumed much of the meeting. The panel wants to change its procedures for investigating board members because of the chaos and controversy that surrounded its inquiry into Evans (D), who also is a D.C. Council member. The panel is expected to approve the changes and submit them to the full board Sept. 26.
The four-member committee found in May that Evans had committed an ethics violation by failing to disclose a conflict of interest with Colonial Parking. But it initially kept the finding confidential and said there was no written record of its proceedings.
The secrecy allowed Evans and an ally on the ethics committee, former board member Corbett A. Price, to falsely claim that the panel had cleared Evans of any violation.
The committee’s finding ultimately was made public under pressure from the governors of Maryland and Virginia, other officials, and board members not on the ethics committee. The Washington Post published a confidential 20-page memo of the probe’s findings that was written by the outside law firm retained by the board to investigate Evans.
The scandal led Evans and Price to resign from the board.
To avoid a repeat of that embarrassing episode, board chairman Paul Smedberg, who also heads the ethics committee, said the proposed changes to the ethics code “are designed to improve transparency, accountability, clarity and fairness to all parties.”
They provide that the ethics committee will make its actions public, even if conflicts of interest are quickly resolved such as by the board members recusing themselves from decisions.
If an investigation takes place, then the ethics committee must provide a public written report to the board, which then would meet to decide on a response.
“The board then needs to convene a public session and discuss that report, and, if they found a violation, what, if any, sanctions the board feels is appropriate for the affected board member,” Metro General Counsel Patricia Y. Lee said.
“That would all be in public session,” Lee said.
The proposed changes also provide that Metro’s own inspector general would usually conduct ethics investigations, instead of hiring an outside law firm. Lee said that was consistent with best practices used by other transit agencies.
The panel also wants to specify that the standard for finding an ethics violation is “whether the evidence shows that it is more likely than not” that the affected board member violated the code.
That change was in response to concerns raised by some ethics committee members during the Evans inquiry that it wasn’t clear how strong the evidence needed to be to find a violation.