WASHINGTON - Two top officials who have taken the lead in cleaning up ethical lapses and mismanagement at the board overseeing the Washington region's two major airports came under fire for their own actions Friday at a House oversight hearing.
Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority chairman Michael Curto and CEO Jack Potter both "engaged in, shall I say, missteps" during their time at the authority, according to testimony from the Department of Transportation's inspector general, Calvin Scovel III, to the House Transportation Committee.
Both faced sharp questioning from lawmakers, including several who questioned whether they should continue to hold their positions.
The hearing came after a scathing federal audit released earlier this month that cited lax contracting procedures, nepotism, and board members and senior employees who accepted lavish gifts like Super Bowl tickets from contractors who received work from the authority.
Both Curto and Potter say they have taken significant steps to clamp down on abuse, including dismissal of senior officials whose actions were questioned in the audit.
But at Friday's hearing, they were questioned about their own actions.
Curto was asked about why he recommended his wife's law firm to receive a $100,000 sole-source contract and failed to tell others that his wife was the firm's director of administration until after the contract was awarded.
Curto said the recommendation was a "misstep" that resulted in an appearance of a conflict, but said neither he nor his wife received any personal benefit from it and that the board needed to hire a law firm quickly.
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., was unimpressed. "There is a lawyer on every corner," she said, skeptical that Curto's wife's firm possessed some special ability that merited a sole-source contract.
Potter was questioned about his decision to hire a former board member, Mame Reiley, for an $180,000 job created specifically for her. Potter has said hiring Reiley was a mistake and he terminated her contract, though he said she did good work for the authority.
The board's vice chairman, former Virginia Republican congressman Tom Davis, defended Potter as someone who is committed to fixing the airports authority's problems. He and others noted that nearly all the board members who were in office when the abuses occurred will have been replaced by the end of this year.
"Just give us some time," Davis said. "We are moving in the right direction."
Friday's hearing also provided another opportunity for Virginia lawmakers to press the case that the state should control a majority of the appointments to the board. Currently Virginia's governor gets to appoint seven of the 17 members, with the rest appointed by Maryland, the District of Columbia and the federal government.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., testified that it only makes sense for Virginia to have a greater say because both Reagan and Dulles International airports are in Virginia. The rationale is even stronger now because the airports authority is also responsible for overseeing the biggest ongoing infrastructure project in the state, the $5.6 billion extension of the region's Metrorail system to Dulles.
The authority also sets the toll rates on a major highway in Virginia, the Dulles Toll Road, and has been forced to consistently raise the rates on that road as a means of generating revenue to pay for Metrorail extension.
Connolly and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., are sponsoring legislation that would shrink the airports board from 17 members to nine, and give Virginia control over a majority of the appointments.
The committee chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said Connolly makes "a pretty good case." But D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton opposed what she said would amount to a takeover of the board by Virginia. She noted a recent compromise last year that expanded the board by four members and gave Virginia two of those slots.
She said she is sympathetic to the notion that Virginia wants to control its own affairs but said the District needs a say in how the airports used by its residents are managed.
"You want to talk about home rule? Let's start with the District of Columbia. Then we'll get to Virginia," Norton said.