Members of Congress made a huge mistake when they created the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority as a completely independent entity, with absolutely no accountability to taxpayers or their elected representatives. Now that MWAA has been caught with its hands in the cookie jar, Congress must fix this fundamental flaw.
The original idea was to have the president, the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of D.C. appoint 13 supposedly independent board members to oversee the operations of the two federal airports in Virginia that serve the Washington region. Of all people, members of Congress should have known that politics is in play wherever there are political appointees. But they failed to set up any mechanisms to hold these political appointees accountable.
A long-overdue federal inspector general's audit released Nov. 1 documents what happened next: rampant corruption at the highest levels of MWAA, including no-bid contracts, insider deals, widespread nepotism and lavish spending by arrogant board members, some of whom refused to step down when their terms were over.
This week, the beleaguered authority finally agreed to grant U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood "full access at any time" to its books, records and documents. But this is only because MWAA bungled Phase 2 of the Silver Line project and needs a federal bailout.
MWAA CEO Jack Potter reassured LaHood that he is fixing the problems identified by the IG's audit, including firing seven staff members mentioned in his report. But Potter himself recommended his wife's law firm for a $100,000 sole-source consulting contract even though it raised not one, but two ethical issues. The same person caught gaming the system cannot be trusted to fix it. Neither can MWAA Board of Directors Chairman Michael Curto, who wants LaHood to limit his oversight, presumably after he has more federal funds in hand.
This is the perfect time for Congress to make permanent changes in MWAA's charter, clearly spelling out the ethical standards expected of MWAA board members and staff and the legal consequences for violating them. MWAA should also be required to answer any future Freedom of Information Act requests and submit a detailed annual report to Congress and the public.
Last month at a congressional hearing, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., called MWAA "a poster child for corruption." Such corruption will continue until MWAA becomes less "independent" -- and a lot more accountable.