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MWAA to get permanent federal oversight

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, an entity that for many years played by its own rules, will now be subject to permanent federal oversight.

Language to give the Department of Transportation’s inspector general the authority to audit and investigate operations at MWAA was included in the $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by the Senate this week and headed to President Obama for his signature.

The provision was sought by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) who has pushed for more accountability and transparency at the authority charged with managing construction of the $5.6 billion Silver Line rail project as well as the Dulles Toll Road and Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

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 was neither a federal nor a state entity, its officials had long maintained that they do not have to adhere to many of the rules and regulations that apply to federal or state agencies.

Since 2010, Wolf has pushed for greater oversight of MWAA. In February of 2011, Wolf requested the U.S. Department of Transportation’s IG conduct a review of MWAA. The report, completed in November 2012, detailed several instances of  questionable conduct by its top executives and members of its appointed board. It also revealed irregularities in the awarding of millions in no-bid contracts.

In July 2012, then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood installed one of his top legal advisers to monitor the authority as it rewrote its ethics and travel policies and revamped its contracting practices. The authority has since won praise for its efforts, but questions remain about its operations.

This week, a federal inspector general’s report found several instances in which authority officials had mishandled millions in federal grant money. In some instances, MWAA charged the government for expenses not allow under federal rules; in others instances it could not provide proper documentation for charges it billed to the government.

“I’m pleased with the progress MWAA has made in implementing the recommendations of the IG report, but the inclusion of this provision in the Omnibus is a critical step that will prevent future missteps and abuses by MWAA,” Wolf said.

According to Wolf, the inspector general will have total oversight over MWAA, its board, employees, contractors and subcontractors, and would have the authority to audit and observe closed meetings of the MWAA board of directors. MWAA will be responsible for paying the expenses of the IG, including staff salaries and benefits and operating costs.

This post has been updated.