The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board of Directors moved ahead Sept. 5 with policy reforms that they say are aimed at restoring public confidence in the authority and its leadership.
However, during the course of the policy discussions, some members suggested the board has continued functioning as a “good ol’ boys network,” with decisions being made behind the scenes and without the knowledge of the full board.
Board member Shirley Robinson Hall and other appointees from the District of Columbia said they were not privvy to some of the authority’s most recent controversial decisions, namely the hiring of former member Mame Reilly.
Reilly was hired on a five-year consulting contract just after she resigned from the board. The board did not vote on her hiring but, according to Hall, some board members knew about it.
“I knew nothing of the matter until I read it in the newspaper,” Hall said. She added she thought the hiring was inappropriate.
“It appears there is a shadow board operating here,” she said.
Authority President and CEO Jack Potter said he takes full responsibility for hiring Reilly. Her contract will be terminated this month, once she wraps up some work she currently is doing for the authority, Potter said. She will receive one year’s salary, about $180,000, as severance pay through Aug. 30, 2013, according to the terms of her contract.
“I hired her because of her skill set. ... I viewed her as an asset to this institution,” Potter said. “In hindsight, I could have used better judgement.”
Board Chairman Michael Curto said during a meeting with reporters that the concerns the D.C. members raised Wednesday simply reflect the “open discussion and debate” typical of any board.
Reilly’s hiring is just one of a slate of issues involving the board’s transparency and ethics that federal authorities have questioned.
An interim U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General’s report in May cited abuse of board travel expenditures, vague ethical guidelines for board members, insufficient competition when awarding agency contracts, and a general lack of transparency into authority operations.
Following reports about Reilly’s hiring last month, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood — along with the governors of Virginia and Maryland and the D.C. mayor — said in a letter that the authority must change its policies.
“Overall, the [inspector general] report depicts an organization that conducts much of its business behind closed doors, awards many of its contracts on a sole-source basis and is in desperate need of reform,” LaHood’s Aug. 16 letter stated.
This week’s actions — adopting a new travel policy for the board and staff and preparing a new ethics policy — were, in large part, a response to the report, Curto said.
“I want to be absolutely clear that the board takes your questions and concerns very seriously,” Curto said Wednesday, reading a statement directed at LaHood and regional leaders. “You want the same thing that we want — a well-run, efficient and transparent organization.”
Under the new travel policy, all travel must be approved in advance and there are limits on the type and amount of expenses that may be reimbursed, based on comparable limits in the federal government.
Later this month, the board plans to adopt updated, stricter ethics policies for the board and for authority staff.
The draft ethics policy, which the board reviewed and discussed Wednesday, would add to the types of circumstances in which board members must recuse themselves from matters before the board; require financial disclosures from board members; implement a two-year ban on employment for any director or his or her family members; and an anti-nepotism provision for contracting and hiring practices.
Although Tom Davis, board vice chairman and former Virginia congressman, said the moves signify “a new era at MWAA,” not all board members were sold on the more stringent requirements.
“This is a remarkable exercise in self-flagellation,” said Robert Clarke Brown, adding the draft ethics code has a “punitive tone.”
Brown also voted against the travel policy because he objected to giving the board chairman decision-making power regarding board members’ travel expenditures.
Others said they wanted to ensure they still would have the freedom to refer acquaintances or friends who might be good candidates for employment at the authority.
The board is expected to approve the new ethics policies Sept. 19.
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