The board overseeing the $6 billion Dulles Rail project was lax about board members' ethical standards, allowing them to rack up inappropriate personal expenses and dole out no-bid contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, federal investigators reported Tuesday.
The investigation of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority was prompted by federal, state and local officials' complaints about the escalating cost of the rail project. Their interim report identified a broad range of behavior at MWAA that they said would not be tolerated at other federal, state or local government organizations.
"If the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors operated like they did," said Loudoun Board Chairman Scott York, "we'd all be shot."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday that he would appoint a staff member to monitor MWAA while it corrects shortcomings cited by investigators.
The Transportation Department's inspector general found, among other things, that board members recently charged MWAA $4,800 for three dinners in Hawaii and $238 for two bottles of wine. Another board member spent $9,200 on an airline ticket to Prague because he didn't buy it until just days before the conference he was attending began. None of the board members were identified by investigators.
Investigators also determined that two-thirds of MWAA contracts worth more than $200,000 were issued between January 2009 and June 2011 without competitive bids, though it didn't say whether any of those awards were inappropriate.
The source of many of MWAA's problems lies in its lax policies governing ethical standards, financial disclosure requirements and conflict-of-interest reporting common to government entities, investigators said. That lack of basic guidelines made it virtually impossible to police violations of closed-door meeting rules or other potential ethical problems, investigators said.
In one episode, investigators said a board member recommended that his wife's law firm provide the authority with a legal opinion allowing it to block the addition of two new members from Virginia and retain two others whose terms had expired. The contract was worth $100,000.
MWAA board chairman Michael Curto admitted Tuesday that he was that board member. But he denied recommending his wife's firm and insisted no board policies had been violated.
"I had a discussion with the general counsel. I didn't make the decision," Curto said.
Local officials said the report underscores their claims that the airports authority overseeing one of the nation's largest public works projects is unaccountable and in desperate need of reform.
Authority officials promised to clean house and institute more internal controls.
"We're going to use what was said in these reports to enhance our operations and enhance our transparency and assure the confidence that the traveling public should have in MWAA," said authority CEO Jack Potter.MWAA Interim Letter