Wes Vernon Commentary
Airport Authority's "Dirty Laundry" Aired on Capitol Hill... Silver Line: Collateral Damage?
Calvin L. Scovel III looked like a disciplinarian who not only does not suffer fools gladly, but is well-prepared by experience to lower the boom on anyone caught with his hand in the cookie jar (or worse). I haven't seen a no-nonsense scowl quite like that since years ago when I was called into the principal's office in school.
One would think he was a tough Marine and a military judge all rolled into one. Oh, wait! Maybe that's because that in fact is his background. Twenty-nine years of active service in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring as a brigadier general. His last assignment? A senior judge on the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals.
Murder, rape, child sexual assault, drug trafficking - he's seen it all as a Marine judge advocate. So the hi-jinks attributed to members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) should be easy meat for his tough task-master's meat grinder.
Are we being a tad too harsh on folks at the MWAA? After all, as one of them noted, the board members serve with no pay. You can feed that to the birds. It cuts no ice with Calvin L. Scovel III, now Inspector General (IG) for the United States Department of Transportation. Serving the public for no pay is not a license to raid the public piggy bank by skirting the rules in terms of ethics, contracting, and human resources as "procedures, business practices" raise eyebrows.
Committee called to order
General Scovel appeared with MWAA board members and officials at a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I).
Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) started the rolling indictments by listing the long parade of abuses. He was immediately followed by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) who cited her legislation stipulating that MWAA "must observe procedures used by every other federal agency."
Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) bemoaned such practices as improperly accepting gifts, nepotism, and ignoring requirements for competitive bidding in contracts.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) scolded the board for "violating [the public] trust" through acceptance of such enticements as free tickets to the Super-bowl; and other practices, the Baltimorean opined, "that would make Jack Abramoff blush."
Jury still out?
Of course, the money-pot that occupies center stage in all this is the Metrorail line to Loudoun County by way of Tysons Corner, Reston, and Dulles International Airport. Since this is one of the largest public works projects ever, it has attracted an outsized interest from many, many sources - some of them welcome; others, well, let's let General Scovel verbalize it. (Patience, we're getting to that. First let's hear from the general's boss.)
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that if ethics infractions did not stop, DOT "would terminate all existing contracts." He added that about a half dozen reforms that have been put in place.
Noting that he, the federal government's top transportation official, had found out about the abuses when "a local newspaper reported it," Mr. LaHood reported that many reforms are "complete or still in progress." The audit just completed is phase 1, according to the secretary, and there "will be another one next year."
The DOT boss noted Phase 1 has worked "pretty well," crediting the new board members with an understanding that "things have to be changed." These new people "get it," he assured the lawmakers.
Inspector General Scovel sounded less assured. While there have been "many corrections," he acknowledged, "I remain an in-house skeptic." Over time, the IG would "reserve judgment."
Scovel noted, among other things, that "there are criminal investigations by the FBI," about which he "was not clear to discuss....at this time."
Are there some "bad players" still employed?" Chairman Mica wanted to know.
Scovel replied that of such employees identified, 7 were "no longer with [the MWAA] or [are] on the way out."
Mica then turned to MWAA Vice Chairman Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman, and half-jokingly asked him if his position enabled him to deal with "vice."
To which Davis replied that he surely hoped so, given that he, as with other board members, serves "without compensation" and had attended 38 board meetings this year.
Speaking of "compensation"
There was some dispute over the fact that a longtime board member resigned her membership on the panel and then reportedly took a six-figure salary to work on MWAA projects as an employee.
The former member left the board because of ill health and the need to close down her business, according to Board Chairman Michael A. Curto. IG Scovel indicated Board CEO John E. Potter "circumvented procedures" by hiring the former board member the day after her board resignation without seeking board approval. Potter, for his part, said he hired the person because she was "uniquely qualified" to do that work, although in hindsight, "my judgment was not good" in going around the board.
Reportedly, the move had "a harsh effect on other board members," according to Scovel who also added, the hiring figure at a reported $180,000 was "not for me to judge." Both Potter and the outgoing board member had conferred with him about the move, the IG added.
The former board member was not mentioned by name at the congressional hearing, but the description fits that of Mame Reiley, a legend on MWAA and also known for her longtime advocacy of rail service to Dulles. The switch from board member to consultant/employee enabled her to go from an 80-hour to a 40-hour work week, thus allowing time to tend to serious health issues.
As for Potter, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) asked MWAA Chairman Curto if CEO Potter should still "be around." Curto took a pass, but Board Vice Chairman Davis said Potter was "the best thing that happened to this board."
Among the first to testify was Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) and Davis' successor in Congress, who complained that 10 out of the 17 board members were not Virginians, despite the fact that Reagan National and Dulles airports are both in the Commonwealth.
That drew a sharp retort from D.C. Delegate Norton who objected to the idea that Virginia would like to "take over" the MWAA board. After all, she noted, a huge chunk of traffic coming into those airports, especially Reagan, then "flood the streets of the city of Washington" with out-of-towners arriving to do business or attend conferences in the nation's capital.
Congressman Connolly noted he and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) had introduced legislation to start over with a board that would give Virginia "more control."
Delegate Norton said she would vigorously fight the measure, and added, "If Congressmen Connolly and Wolf are worried about 'home rule' the District of Columbia" could speak volumes to that issue.
At that point, no one embarked on the endless volumes could be spoken about the thousands of jobs that accrue to DC, a city that is arguably one of the few spots, if not the only area on the U.S. map, with a robust economy generated by its role as the seat of a federal government that is ballooning to previously unheard of proportions, thanks to taxpayers in other areas of the country not as economically well-off. Possibly to head off a prolonged harangue, Committee Chairman Mica observed that issue would "not be settled today."
Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Oh.) did add some "frosting to the cake" by adding she didn't see why MWAA could not include BWI on its agenda. That would not be "settled today" either.
Freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), who had defeated the then House T&I Chairman James Oberstar, complained about the hiring of Mame Reiley without Board approval. To which Davis said he found out about it when reading it in the newspaper.
To Potter, Congressman Cravaack asked how the CEO could be unaware of some of the questionable contracts that went through. Responded Potter, "Once I found out, I would act on it."
"I have no confidence in this board," said the Minnesotan. "If it were up to me," he added, "I'd dissolve the board and start over."
"Fine with me," opined Davis. "But watch us; we're going to clean up."
In any event, Mr. Cravaak will soon not be in a position to follow through on abolishing the board. The rookie lawmaker on Nov. 6 had been defeated in his bid for re-election.
Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer and veteran broadcast journalist.