The political fight over Metro’s new Silver Line boiled over again Thursday, when a labor leader filed suit challenging a move hours earlier to oust him from the board overseeing construction of the multibillion-dollar rail extension.

Dennis Martire, who has been one of Virginia’s representatives on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board, has drawn criticism for overseas travel expenses, including a $9,000 trip to Prague to attend a transportation conference.

But he and his supporters said the effort to remove him by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) was unwarranted and unprecedented, and they were clearly ready when the governor acted Thursday morning. The 17-page lawsuit, which seeks to block McDonnell’s action, was filed Thursday afternoon in federal court in the District.

The governor has been seeking greater influence with the airports authority, and in pushing out Martire, who was appointed by McDonnell’s predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine (D), McDonnell would be able to install a board member of his choosing.

Speculation about Martire has been building in recent weeks because a federal audit highlighted some of his travel expenditures, including the Prague trip. In total, Martire spent $38,000 attending five conferences in 2010 and 2011, according to MWAA records.

In a statement, McDonnell’s office explained the decision.

“Today, the Governor exercised his authority under state and federal law to remove MWAA board member Dennis Martire for cause,” said McDonnell’s spokesman, Tucker Martin. “The governor determined that recently well-publicized issues regarding individual decisions made by Mr. Martire as a board member involving taxpayer dollars, coupled with his continued reluctance to improve the transparency of his actions, have diminished public confidence in his ability to effectively serve on this critically important board.”

MWAA officials called the removal of a sitting board member unprecedented, and a leading Northern Virginia Democrat said the move was all politics. “I think this is part of a raw power play — a national assault on organized labor by the Republican Party,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said. “It’s part and parcel of an organized campaign. I don’t know how they will be able to prove cause in a court of law.”

Although Martire’s trip did not appear to violate any MWAA rules, it was one of several significant expenditures flagged by the federal transportation officials who have been examining the operations of the board.

Critics said the incident undermined public opinion of the MWAA, which, along with running the Reagan National and Dulles International airports, is building Metro’s rail extension to Dulles and Loudoun County.

After the critical report by the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general, the MWAA’s chairman, Michael Curto, suspended most international travel by board members and established an internal mechanism to ensure compliance with the authority’s policies.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, attorneys for Martire, who is vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said their client seeks “to preserve MWAA’s independence by preventing the Governor of Virginia’s unlawful and politically-motivated attempt to unseat Mr. Martire from his board position.” They asked the court to block McDonnell from removing Martire from the board.

Martin said the governor, who is in Europe on a trade mission, would have no comment on the lawsuit.

Early Thursday evening, Martire’s status as a board member remained unclear.

“The removal of a sitting Board member whose term has not expired is an unprecedented act,” wrote MWAA spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs in an e-mail. “The Board and Senior staff will review the Governor’s letter and consult with legal counsel before responding to the governor’s action.”

In addition to being a subject of concern about his travel expenses, Martire has clashed with McDonnell’s administration over incorporating a project labor agreement, or PLA, into in the second phase of the Silver Line project. Under pressure from McDonnell and others, Martire joined 10 of the 11 other board members in voting this month to do away with the PLA.
State officials have also faulted Martire for failing to turn over a current statement of economic interest. But in his suit, Martire said that MWAA board members are not required to submit a Virginia disclosure form and noted that the governor has not attempted to remove other Virginia representatives on the board who have not submitted their forms.

Staff writer Maggie Fazeli Fard contributed to this report.