by James A. Bacon
Talk about a crazy situation… After months of delay, the Washington, D.C., City Council is scheduled October 2 to approve amendments to a bi-state compact with Virginia that would expand the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), giving the Old Dominion greater representation. The amendments were based upon legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama at the behest of Rep. Frank Wolf, Va-10.
Assuming the council acts as expected, it still will be behind the curve. Frustrated by “appalling decisions” made by the MWAA board, Wolf has submitted a new bill that would shrink the board and give Virginia representatives an outright majority. The board, which worked actively to block implementation of the previous changes is “dysfunctional,” he says.
The current board lacks transparency and accountability, said Wolf in an August press release, pointing to a series of “appalling” decisions over the past two years, including a $200,000 confidential settlement with an unsuccessful candidate to run the authority and sweetheart deals for former board members and board staff. He also cited lavish travel by board members.
“MWAA used to have a well-functioning and highly successful board,” Wolf said. “Now it has just dissolved into bitter acrimony. Board members are subpoenaing each other. It is internecine warfare. This cannot stand. It is time to give Virginia control.”
Last week the MWAA board did adopt a new travel policy and hiring policies, as the new chairman, Michael A. Curto, sought to re-establish credibility with the authority’s stakeholders.
After the MWAA board’s session last week, Curto stated:
As I started my tenure as chairman, I laid out three priorities for the organization: increased cooperation with our partners, especially the Commonwealth of Virginia, greater transparency for management and board operations, and the timely and cost-effective completion of the rail project. While it is true that the Authority has made its share of mistakes, and there are a number of issues that have yet to be adequately addressed, I think our harshest critics would also acknowledge that we have made significant progress on those key objectives.
President and CEO Jack Potter reported last week that the Authority was closing out all “sole source” professional services contracts that had been exempted from competitive bidding. In effect, that meant firing former director Mame Reiley, whom he had hired under a multi-year contract for a $180,000-a-year job. Her contract still called for a one-year severance.
The new travel policy would preclude any more junkets, such as one in which then-board member Dennis Martire, a a senior executive with the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) charged MWAA for a nine-day trip to Europe with his girlfriend on the pretext of attending a 36-hour conference on by the Airports Council International.
At least two other former board members – and a former staff member of the board – have been beneficiaries of sweetheart deals, Wolf said, citing exposes by the Washington Examiner. Last year the board awarded a $100,000 contract to a law firm where a board member’s wife works.
In other questionable activities, the board paid $200,000 to an individual who was “all but promised” – but never offered – the CEO position. The deal was struck to avoid a potential lawsuit.
One issue yet to hit the media involves the confiscation of a board member’s papers left at his seat after a recent meeting, Wolf said. The Congressman stated in the press release that “it was his understanding that” a board member left the July session for a lunch meeting, fully intending to return. The board meeting adjourned, however, before he came back and board staff collected his things. “Instead of just putting the documents in an envelope, the staff read through them and then passed them onto the board secretary, who, I understand, also went through them,” Wolf said. “Believing the documents could be pertinent to litigation involving MWAA, the board secretary turned them over to the authority’s general counsel. This incident has led to series of subpoenas being issued to several board members and others, including me and my chief of staff.”
Another incident revolves around the attempted removal of a Virginia board member — Martire, the labor executive — for cause by Governor McDonnell, Wolf said. The board member has challenged his removal in court and MWAA is paying his legal fees.
“I suspect MWAA will have to start paying the legal fees of other board members who have now been subpoenaed in the case,” Wolf said. “Knowing how fast legal fees can accumulate, I am deeply troubled by these latest turn of events, especially considering taxpayers are footing the bill.”
The problems do not end here, Wolf said.
The terms of all three of the federal appointments have expired and finding replacements continues to drag on and on. The District left an appointee on the board for nearly two years after his term has expired, despite being under house arrest in the Ivory Coast and attending only one meeting between 2009 and 2011. It was going to be that member’s proxy vote to hire the unsuccessful CEO candidate who received a $200,000 settlement. Board members also used to meet with the former chairman the night before meetings to plot strategy for the next day’s meetings, Wolf said.
“All this points to a board that is totally dysfunctional, fiscally irresponsible and tone deaf,” Wolf said.
MWAA’s actions last week come too little and too late for Wolf. “The Congressman’s new bill will “give Virginia complete control” over the MWAA board, Daniel Scandling, Wolf’s chief of staff, told me.
Scandling acknowledged the political difficulties in persuading Maryland and Washington to agree to an arrangement that would further diminish their power on the board, but he noted that the bill enjoyed bipartisan support among Virginia’s congressional delegation and has been backed by leading business lobbies in Northern Virginia. “Never say never.”
McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell did not respond to two phone calls and an email from Bacon’s Rebellion to address the Washington City Council’s action, or lack of it, on the bi-state compact.