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Dulles Rail board members spend big on exotic junkets

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Local,Virginia,Transportation,Liz Essley

The board in charge of the $6 billion Dulles Rail project, under fire from state and federal officials over its lavish excursions, spends more than $200,000 a year sending board members and staff around the world, from Hawaii to Italy, The Washington Examiner has learned.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, or MWAA, says its spending is a way to generate business for its airports. But The Examiner found that other airport boards with similar duties and responsibilities from New York to Minneapolis spend far less -- in some cases, nothing at all -- on such travel.

"On its face, it sounds like a very excessive travel budget," said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, a critic of the regional board. "People are placed on the airports authority to manage the airports and to be good stewards of the public funds they generate. We believe they need to be more accountable."

Places MWAA board members traveled in 2010-2011
Cagliari, Italy
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tel Aviv, Israel
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Brussels, Belgium
Prague, Czech Republic
Maui, Hawaii
Kona, Hawaii
San Francisco
New York

The airports authority budgeted between $230,000 and $260,000 for travel every year for at least the last six years, using the money to send officials to meetings, conferences and airline events, like Ethiopian Airlines' purchase of a Boeing 777. The fund reimburses officials for lavish meals and luxury hotel stays, and most of the money is spent every year, though the board went over budget by $26,000 in 2007.

Authority members are already under fire for taking lavish trips to exotic locales. Federal investigators questioned the expenses, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell cited costly trips to conferences in Prague and Sardinia, Italy, when he ousted board member Dennis Martire. Board Chairman Michael Curto has since suspended international travel for board members.

Board members, who promised to scale back their travel in 2008 when it first became an issue, say the trips help drum up business for the airports they oversee.

"You can't just sit out there in Virginia and not travel," board member H.R. Crawford said. "That's one of the purposes of the authority. You have to be acquainted with what's going on in the industry."

The travel budget -- funded with fees from airlines and not tax dollars -- doesn't cover only international travel, board members said. Some of the money is used to pay for federal appointees to fly in for board meetings from Ohio and North Carolina because authority rules require that those members live outside the Washington area.

But the travel budget did not sit well with the McDonnell administration, which already has frosty relations with the airports board.

"It does sound as if they've taken the concept of independence so far that it means they don't feel accountable," Connaughton said.

McDonnell told The Washington Examiner he would keep working to improve the authority's track record.

"There are still some things I think need to be done to respond to this Obama administration [inspector general] report dealing with the contracting and accountability practices of MWAA. There are number of things that still need to be done," McDonnell said. "My goal is to make sure there's accountability for the taxpayers of Virginia."

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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