As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority scrambles to remake its image following a series of ethical lapses, the nation’s top transportation official is doing his part to make sure the authority puts its troubles behind it.
In July, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood dispatched one of his top legal advisers, Kimberly L. Moore, to MWAA to serve as the agency’s new accountability officer. Her job: to ensure that the authority charged with overseeing construction of the Silver Line, one of the nation’s largest infrastructure projects. is operating aboveboard.
On Wednesday, as MWAA’s directors take up a new ethics policy, Moore will be in the room, listening intently.
For months, MWAA has been buffeted by criticism amid disclosures of questionable no-bid contracts, expensive international trips and other ethical troubles. Moore’s job is part of an aggressive effort by federal officials to increase scrutiny of the powerful authority. The vote Wednesday marks a significant turning point in the authority’s effort to repair its reputation.
A little over a month into her new job, the 33-year-old former state prosecutor in Virginia has immersed herself in efforts to revamp MWAA’s ethics and travel policies.
Although many of the incidents that have come to light in inspector general reports and news accounts do not appear to violate MWAA policies, they have damaged the authority’s credibility.
MWAA operates the region’s two federally owned airports, Reagan National and Dulles International, as well as the Dulles Toll Road. MWAA also is overseeing construction of the Silver Line, Metro’s $5.6 billion rail extension to Dulles, a project that has made the authority the subject of intense scrutiny.
“I am working with them to restore public trust in [MWAA] as a capable body able to manage a large public project,” Moore said in a recent interview at DOT’s headquarters in Southeast Washington. “It is a public board; I’m not sure if that got lost along the way.”
MWAA was created in 1987 by an interstate compact. Its board includes appointed representatives from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. But because MWAA is neither a federal nor a state entity, its officials have long maintained that they do not have to adhere to many of the rules and regulations that apply to federal or state agencies. They note that the authority is funded not by tax dollars but by concession and passenger fees and tolls.
But the notion of MWAA as an autonomous body is changing.
“I’ve told them from the beginning, they need to get their act together if they want to have any credibility,” LaHood said. “This is a big deal and I want to make sure it is done correctly. I want to make sure Washingtonians know that someone is keeping an eagle eye on these folks.”
Moore has done a terrific job, LaHood said.
“She’s pointed [MWAA] in a direction that nobody ever believed could happen,” he said.
Moore joined the DOT general counsel’s office in 2008 after working as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Portsmouth. At DOT, she quickly earned a reputation as serious and thorough, and came to specialize in procurement and ethics issues — just the skills LaHood was seeking at MWAA.
Despite the avalanche of bad publicity, some board members remain reluctant to support ending some of the perks to which they’ve grown accustomed. During a discussion this month, some board members appeared miffed that they would be required to follow federal per-diem expense caps while traveling and would be prevented from flying business class domestically. Others chafed at a proposal to require them for the first time to seek permission for trips.
MWAA has refused to release copies of the draft ethics rules that will be discussed Wednesday.
But details drawn from the discussion this month indicate that officials likely will tighten conflict-of-interest rules for board members, reflecting concerns over an incident in which a no-bid contract was awarded to a law firm that employed a board member’s wife.
Moore said that MWAA officials have been cooperative, granting her access to the resources she needs. But she acknowledged that the authority is unaccustomed to outside scrutiny.
“Any time you’re going to change the rules, you’re going to have some discord,” she said.“The public has to have trust in the board leadership. We have to be an example here.”
MWAA President and CEO Jack Potter said Moore has been an excellent partner — serious, but willing to listen and collaborate. As an example, he cited her work on the travel policy. While Moore could have demanded that the agency simply adopt the federal government’s 300-page policy, Potter said, she instead took the time to understand the rationale behind MWAA’s policy. The result was a policy that took into account MWAA’s unique needs but still mirrored many federal guidelines.
“The bottom line is that she took the time to learn what we did. That was important to us,” he said.
Moore is expected to remain in her job until legislation sponsored by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) to create an inspector general at MWAA wins Senate approval.
LaHood said that with his appointment of Moore, “I’ve made it clear to MWAA that if they don’t get their act together, if they don’t improve their performance, if they don’t spend money according to the way it should be spent, they they’re going to be out of the business of managing Phase 2 of the Silver Line.”