Airport insiders score big-buck contracts

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Local,Virginia,Transportation,Liz Essley

The authority in charge of building the $6 billion Dulles Rail line -- already under fire from federal investigators for its lax ethical standards and questionable contracting practices -- awarded tens of thousands of dollars' worth of contracts to a former board member and a former board secretary, The Washington Examiner has learned.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority awarded a $42,000 no-bid contract to former authority board member Leonard Manning for "air cargo consulting" services under which he helped bring flower shipments from Ethiopia to Washington Dulles International Airport.

The authority also awarded a series of contracts, including one worth $197,000 in October 2011, to former board Secretary Gregory Wolfe, who retired in 2007 but continued to advise the board on ethics issues as an outside contractor.

The contracts came to light in a public records request made by The Washington Examiner at a time when federal investigators are raising questions about the airports authority's contracting practices. The investigators reported earlier this month that two-thirds of the authority's large contracts, worth a total of $226 million, were awarded without competitive bids between 2009 and 2011.

The contracts reviewed by The Examiner also raised questions about jobs being awarded to authority insiders.

Manning's term on the board expired just months before he was hired under the $42,000 consulting contract to work with Ethiopian Airlines to begin delivering hypericum and roses to Dulles in January. It was part of an authority effort to make Dulles a "cargo hub," and officials said in an email that Manning was chosen "because of his close relationships with Ethiopian Airlines and flower producers" and because he was already working on the project while still on the board.

"It's hard to find an Ethiopian rose development specialist," said Mark Treadaway, MWAA's vice president for air service development. "I don't think there really are that many. He had unique relationships."

Manning also defended the contract.

"It was just continuation of what I was doing on the board," he said. "I don't see anything wrong with it."

Airports authority officials said Wolfe, the former board secretary who retired and then continued working for the board under a series of consulting contracts, also possessed unique qualifications that warranted awarding him contracts.

"Greg provides legal advice to the board on issues around conflicts of interest, the code of ethics," said board Secretary Quince Brinkley, who replaced Wolfe. "Also Greg, as the former secretary, has been at the authority 22 years, and he has all the historical knowledge of this agency."

Wolfe said there's nothing improper about the contract he has with his former employer.

"I'm not sure what the issue is," Wolfe said. "I have a contract, and I'm supposed to provide independent legal advice for the board, and that's what I do."

The airports authority board was recently cited by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general for lavish spending, including $4,800 for three Hawaiian dinners and a $9,200 plane ticket to Prague. The same report questioned the board's porous ethics policies and frequent use of closed-door sessions.

Airports authority officials promised to tighten policies earlier this month.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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