After U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the beleaguered Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority at a Congressional hearing last autumn, two Democratic members of Congress did a slow burn and sent separate letters to him, stating they were "troubled" and "disappointed and concerned" by his support for MWAA.
MWAA oversees the D.C. area's airports -- and is in charge of the massive $6 billion Silver Line rail project. In recent months the agency has been trying to repair its image after a federal audit that found the agency had unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices. The agency also battled Virginia's governor, who sought to oust a member of its board, and it's being sued by a former employee. Now, it's hiring an outside public relations firm.
Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards and West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote LaHood following his November 16 testimony in which he expressed “a lot of confidence in” MWAA’s CEO Jack Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto.
Potter, Curto, and MWAA board vice-chairman Tom Davis were all called to testify about the findings in an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general. The audit revealed a litany of questionable hiring and contracting practices – a “culture of nepotism” – inside MWAA.
“In light to these admissions to serious missteps, and those highlighted in the Inspector General’s (IG) report, I am troubled by the support you expressed in their continued leadership,” Edwards wrote LaHood. “I would appreciate a more complete explanation of your support for the current leadership of MWAA despite their admission and the IG’s report.”
Congresswoman Edwards declined to comment on this story, but Secretary LaHood’s office provided the following statement:
“Secretary LaHood met with Congresswoman Edwards on January 23, 2013 to respond to her letter. They had a productive discussion of the steps the Department of Transportation has taken to improve accountability and transparency at MWAA, and the Secretary promised to work with the Congresswoman and other interested Members from the Washington Metropolitan area on this issue moving forward.”
Congressman Rahall’s February 15 letter to Sec. LaHood expressed the same concerns about the federal transportation’s chief stated confidence in Potter and Curto.
“I was disappointed and concerned by your testimony that you ‘have a lot of confidence’ the chairman of MWAA’s board of directors and MWAA’s chief executive officer, particularly in view of the fact that these individuals, by their own acknowledgement, were involved in some of the questionable conduct identified by the Inspector General,” wrote Rahall, the committee’s ranking member.
In their November testimony, the two MWAA leaders said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions. There were, however, notable cases in which they were directly involved: a law firm that employed Curto’s wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel.
“I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for [MWAA] made the decision to retain the law firm. My wife at the time was an employee at that law firm… she had no direct or indirect financial interest in the law firm,” explained Curto. “Although it wasn’t an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created specifically for her at an annual salary of $180,000 without proper vetting or board approval.
“My judgement was not good in terms of the hiring of that person,” said Potter, who said the creation of the job was necessary to meet the challenges created by rising costs at Dulles International.
Following these admissions Edwards asked Curto if he belonged in his leadership position.
“I would hope so,” Curto responded. “I think the body of the report, most of the findings and conclusions of the inspector general's report occurred prior to my time on the board and certainly prior to my tenure as chair.”
When reached to comment on this story, Curto provided a statement.
MWAA’s "leadership continues to work diligently to address the issues and concerns reported on over the past year. We have made significant progress and believe the organization is moving expeditiously in the right direction."
Rep. Rahall’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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