By Peter Galuszka
Many years ago, I started my first journalism job at a daily newspaper in a small town in North Carolina. It was a pleasant, sleepy place where the dominant clans were the Alligoods and the Woolards. If they married, they were known as “Wooligoods.”
When you looked at the lists of employees of anything from the sheriff’s department to the court offices to the local businesses, there were plenty of similar names and lots of family ties. Sorting them out would give a genealogist a headache. There was nothing crooked about it, though. It was just the way it was.
Nonetheless, it does seem unusual that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a major public entity in the capital of the Western world, has an employee roster that evokes images of Andy, Aunt Bea and Mayberry.
According to a recent Washington Post story, hiring family members is so rampant at the authority it is the norm. The Kulle family, The Post says, has a mother working there, her son and daughter, the children’s spouses and her daughter-in-law’s brother. The total pay of the Kulle clan was about $400,000 last year, not including any extra compensation.
It is just another in a long series of questionable practices at MWAA, set up in 1985 to oversee Ronald Reagan National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport and part of the Dulles Access Highway. The authority is overseeing part of the extension of Metrorail to Dulles and operates maintenance, police and fire services. Its 17-member board includes members picked by the governor of Virginia, the D.C. mayor, the Maryland governor and the president.
MWAA, budgeted at $2 billion, has taken an oversized amount of fire recently. The inspector general’s office of the U.S. Department of Transportation revealed a few months ago that MWAA employees were given treats such as Super Bowl tickets and trips to Hilton Head Island by contractors. One board member, Douglas Martire, was forced off the board amid questions about high-priced travel and other matters.
True, some of the controversies smack of politics. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell clearly made a case against Martire both because he is a former union official and a pick made by former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, who ran successfully for the U.S. Senate against McDonnell ally George Allen.
But you still have to ask why this is all happening. I’m not as familiar with Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International Airport, run as an exclusively Maryland show. But you never seem to hear the level of complaints about BWI as you do about MWAA.
The problem is that MWAA was set up as a kind of amorphous “authority” without clear ethical guidelines or chains of command. The board only answers to various governors and the president and that can get rather squishy. One solution would be to dissolve the current MWAA, remake its structure and start over. Doing so would be time consuming, but one has to ask what the dire reasons were for forming MWAA nearly 30 years ago.