Beleaguered Dulles Rail board seeks outside help to repair image

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Local,Virginia,Liz Essley,Metro and Traffic

The beleaguered airports authority in charge of the $6 billion Dulles Rail project is hiring an outside public relations firm to repair its public image, to the tune of $90,000 a year for as long as four years.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been under fire over the past year over for giving no-bid contracts to former board members, spending lavishly on board members' travel and hiring relatives and friends.

Though it already has an in-house communications staff, the authority is calling in extra troops to help "build public awareness of the airports authority's missions, positions, accomplishments, quality of service, and importance to the regional economy," according to documents available to potential bidders.

The public relations contractor would coach authority personnel for "hearings and high-visibility or high risk" public meetings, and draft op-ed articles, speeches and advertisements, according to the solicitation first reported by Watchdog.org.

"Ensuring clear and effective communications is an important business responsibility for the airports authority," authority spokesman Christopher Paolino said in an email. "We believe having access to the outside perspective of a firm with broad communications expertise could often be helpful toward that objective."

Paolino himself was just hired in January for $120,000 annually. The authority also has two other spokesmen, a vice president of communications, two employees for government relations, one for community relations, two for marketing, two for noise abatement issues and two for supporting the rest of the department.

Board member Tom Davis has paid more in the past for outside public relations help.

"We've traditionally had that for crisis management, sometimes just for dealing with the press on difficult issues. We're going to get a ton of inquires on rail to Dulles and the like," he said. "It's not put out there so we can look great. I don't think anything makes us look great right now."

The airports authority came under increased scrutiny from lawmakers after The Washington Examiner reported last year that it gave a former board member a $180,000-a-year job the day after she resigned from the board for health reasons. A federal inspector general found later that the authority had bungled millions in contracts, hired relatives of employees and board members and had lax ethics rules. The authority has since revamped its ethics and travel policies and is still working on rewriting its contracting manual.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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Liz Essley

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner