WASHINGTON — A congressional panel grilled members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board Friday morning in a hearing called to examine a scathing report on the bond-issuing agency’s ethical practices and policies.
The MWAA representatives present before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, including board Chairman Michael Curto and Vice Chairman Tom Davis, a former congressman whose district included the authority, mostly accepted responsibility but also defended some past missteps. They said they had already made most of the reforms needed to alleviate concern.
Davis said the situation at MWAA became difficult after the controversy regarding the Dulles Toll Road hit a fever pitch over the past two years.
“It was at that point this got complicated,” he said, adding the responsibility for the Silver Line rail project falls outside of typical airport operations.
“We got into a political food fight,” he said. “I think the new board is pretty much in sync.”
Curto said all improper contracts have either been terminated or will not be renewed, and that the board took the report “very seriously.”
“We are determined to make the airports authority a stronger and more efficient organization,” he said.
A Nov. 1 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General revealed rampant nepotism among MWAA board members, as well as instances of inappropriate gift-giving between MWAA employees and contractors and lavish travel expenses. It also showed that MWAA used categorical exceptions to limit the competition among contractors for contracts of over $200,000.
The authority has over $6 billion of outstanding bonds according to its 2011 comprehensive annual financial report and is charged with overseeing two Washington-area airports, as well as the controversial Dulles Toll Road and rail extension to the Dulles International Airport.
“The purpose of this is to hold people accountable,” said committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla. “We want the board to act and clean up the failure that is so embarrassing here. Otherwise, this becomes a Kabuki dance.”
Calvin Scovel, 3rd, the inspector general who penned the report, testified that MWAA had made some progress since his initial observations in May. The authority adopted a new ethics policy and travel guidelines. Five new board members have been appointed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
“While MWAA is taking positive steps to correct the deficiencies we identified, further actions are needed to fully address these deficiencies to ensure fiduciary and ethical responsibility and restore public trust in the soundness of its current and future activities” Scovel told the committee.
“The DOT Inspector General’s reports laid out very serious and troubling examples of the authority’s operations,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified. “But the reports also provide a clear and concrete road map for DOT, and MWAA itself, to bring management practices up to the highest levels.”
Troubled by the inspector general’s initial report, LaHood sent a personal envoy to keep tabs on MWAA. He also held meetings between the board and leaders of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
“MWAA’s success is important to all of us. We have made progress but there is still more work to be done,” he said.