Kate Hinds covers transportation for WNYC News.
DC Airports Executives Grilled on Capitol Hill
Monday, November 19, 2012 - 11:02 AM
Top officials at the agency in charge of the $6 billion Silver Line testified before a U.S. House oversight committee on Friday after an audit exposed its unethical hiring, travel, and contracting practices.
Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee grilled MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto and CEO Jack Potter about personal roles and agency policies in the granting of no-bid contracts and the rampant nepotism detailed in the audit. The chair of the house committee, John Mica, called the agency a "poster child for corrupt practices." While acknowledging the agency's missteps, both men pointed to recent measures designed to overhaul MWAA's ethics, travel, and contracting practices.
An audit released earlier this month by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General took the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for "ambiguous policies and ineffectual controls." In addition to overseeing the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, the MWAA also manages Dulles and Reagan National Airports.
Curto and Potter also said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions.
There were, however, cases that directly involved them: the law firm that employed Curto's wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel. Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D-4th) asked Curto to explain how such a large contract could be awarded without the approval of the board of directors.
"I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for the authority 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," said Curto, who said in retrospect the contract should not have been granted on a no-bid basis. "Although it wasn't an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest," he said.
Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created for 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. Rep. Edwards asked the officials if they should remain in their positions given the agency's record.
"I would hope so," Curto said, pointing to the measures MWAA has approved to revamp its ethics, travel, and contracting policies as well as terminate contracts granted to former or current board members.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that MWAA has indeed revamped its policies, adding that its leaders understand reforms must be successful if the agency is going to receive additional federal funding to pay for the Silver Line, whose first phase of construction is scheduled for completion late next year.
"Phase I has worked pretty well. It really has. I think Phase II will work equally well because when you talk to these folks now in charge of MWAA, a new CEO and president, a relatively new chairman, they get it," said LaHood. "These people get it. They do. They know this has to be done correctly."
"They have pending before us a TIFIA loan. We're not going to give them a TIFIA loan if they are not doing things correctly. They know that," added LaHood, referring to the federal loan program for major transportation projects.
In August, LaHood sent the MWAA a blistering letter questioning the board’s ethics and laying out steps the authority must take to get in line.
Phase II construction of the Silver Line is supposed to begin next year.
Watch a video of Friday's hearing here.