Members of a House committee blasted officials at the agency that oversees the Washington area’s airports for awarding millions of dollars in no-bid contracts and cultivating a culture of ethical lapses that included rampant nepotism.
“This is a sad chapter for metropolitan Washington and advocates for good D.C. transportation,” Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Friday during a two-hour hearing that featured tough questioning of officials from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
“Information uncovered by the inspector general revealed that MWAA has become a poster child for corrupt practices,” Mica said.
Added Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.): “These abuses are many and far ranging and run counter to the mission of MWAA.”
Agency officials were called to testify after the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general released a report that cited widespread abuses in contracting and hiring. The long-awaited review marked the harshest account of failings at the authority, which is overseeing construction of the $5.6 billion Metrorail extension that will provide a rail link from Fairfax County to Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County. The project’s cost and scope have fueled tensions and led to jockeying for more political control over the authority.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the committee that his office has aggressively monitored MWAA officials and pushed them to improve accountability as well as tighten ethics and travel practices. In July, LaHood appointed an accountability officer to oversee the MWAA’s reform efforts.
“We have made progress,’’ he said, ticking off a list of changes the authority has made. “But there is still more work to be done.’’
MWAA officials also reiterated their commitment to reforms, saying they will implement all 12 of the recommendations outlined in the inspector general’s report as well as those demanded by LaHood, the governors of Maryland and Virginia, and the mayor of the District. They noted that many of the authority’s board members are recent appointees and that many of the senior managers cited in the audit have left the authority.
Still, committee members were skeptical that the MWAA would follow through on its pledge to root out corruption and restore public trust — especially since problems at the authority are not new. A 2002 federal report, for example, cited many problems in contracting.
“While some interim changes have been made, none of these have been fully implemented or independently reviewed,” Mica said. Without proper follow-through, he said, Friday’s hearing would merely be pretense.
The authority was created as part of an interstate compact between the District and Virginia. But its board members — who were cited in the report for questionable spending on travel and entertainment — include appointed representatives from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. Board members receive no compensation.
Committee members had other tough questions, at one point asking whether the entire board should be fired and a new one appointed.
“To be honest with you gentlemen, I have a supreme lack of confidence in your board. If it was up to me, I would dissolve the board,” said Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.).
Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) grilled the board’s chairman, Michael Curto, for details about a $100,000 no-bid contract that was given to the law firm where his wife worked.
In addition, she was unsatisfied when the authority’s chief executive, Jack Potter, could not say how many family members of staff and board members were employed at the MWAA. When Potter said he did not have a problem with relatives of board members or staff working at the authority as long as they were hired properly, Edwards shot back: “I don’t know that I agree with that. People may have to find other things for people to do.”
Other members demanded to know why a former MWAA board member was given a job with the authority the day after she stepped down from the board, noting that at $180,000 a year, Mame Reiley was paid more than a member of Congress. Reiley has since been let go from the position.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) also sparred with Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who testified during the hearing, over his endorsement of a plan to reduce the MWAA’s board from 17 members to nine and give Virginia the majority of the seats.
Norton noted that she has introduced a bill that would require the MWAA to follow the rules for contracting that federal agencies use. The MWAA is not a federal agency, but it does receive some federal funding.
Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III told that panel that he was most disturbed by revelations that seven former board members had received contracts mostly for lobbying services worth millions of dollars. Those contracts, he said, created the appearance that such a deal was nothing “but a parachute for former board members.”