Unelected, Unaccountable Boards Like Spending Your Money
By: Michael R. Shannon
It’s been a rough few weeks for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority that manages airports in the Washington, DC area and coordinates board member travel to luxury destinations.
MWAA is the unelected and unaccountable board former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (Obama’s choice to head the Democrat National Committee and current candidate for the US Senate) unilaterally selected to oversee construction of Metrorail to Dulles. The board is really great choice since the its prior transportation empire had consisted solely of a rattle–trap collection of ambidextrous shuttle buses at Dulles Airport that caused departing travelers to add an extra 30 minutes to the time necessary to arrive at the gate and arriving passengers to wonder if they were being taken to a re–education camp.
For Kaine’s handoff to work the board needed a source of revenue, preferably one insulated from voters. Kaine accomplished this by transfering ownership of the Dulles Toll Road to the board. The turnpike was worth nearly $3.52 billion and almost paid off, but Kaine didn’t even get a free E–ZPass transponder in return for his gift.
Once MWAA was the proud owner of a slightly–used toll road the board could use toll revenue to pay for construction of a rail line drivers might never use. All without any messy accusations of tax increases or votes in the legislature.
Plus the board is larded with liberal Democrat appointees from Maryland and DC that outnumber Virginia appointees. So regardless of any Republican cretins that mouth–breathing Virginia voters might send to Richmond, management of the project would be Democrat dominated.
Everyone wins except the taxpayer who wants a more direct voice in how his money is spent.
Kaine’s taxpayer–sponsored legacy was in danger when we last visited the board, because funding for Phase II of rail to Dulles was in doubt. The MWAA was insisting Virginia boost its contribution to $300 million and agree to a mandatory Project Labor Agreement (PLA) that specifies only union contractors — or contractors that agree to pay union wages and observe union rules — may bid on the project.
Board members made the usual justifications for the mandatory PLA: Labor goons won’t picket our homes and tinkle in the shrubbery. Unions will endorse Tim Kaine in the 2012 Senate race. Union PACs will continue to contribute millions to other campaigns to elect Democrats. And, oh yes, we might get around to building a railroad.
But that’s old bad news. The new bad news is all that free taxpayer and toll road money allows the MWAA to be as generous with themselves as they are with unions.
The U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general has blasted the board for a lack of adequate oversight on how it awards contracts and pays for travel and entertainment. In addition, the report says board member financial disclosure forms are approximately as detailed as those required to obtain a frequent shopper card at Ace Hardware.
My favorite quote from the report refers to an MWAA “culture that is largely unaccustomed to external audits…(and the board is) reluctant to provide access to key documents…”
However, the documents we have are bad enough.
Dennis Martire — the Tim Kaine appointee and labor union vice president who didn’t think it was a conflict of interest to vote for a PLA requiring union labor — also didn’t have a problem spending $9,192.30 of public money for a business–class airplane ticket to attend a conference in Prague.
Dennis also had a good time at an event in Hawaii (notice how these conferences never take place in say, Oklahoma City?) where dinner for board members came to a three–day total of $4,800. The menu included lobster, lamb, veal, crab cakes and seared hide of taxpayer.
Then there was the board dinner at the Ritz–Carlton where two bottles of wine totaled $238.
Fortunately, according to Jack Potter the new MWAA chief executive, there is no cause for alarm. The WaPost quotes him as assuring disgruntled taxpayers those expenses were “very exceptional” and in “no way represent what happens on a day–to–day basis.” We can rest easy knowing Potter now insists board members stick to the house red during catered lunches and the cleaning staff has been instructed not to order extra cheese on late night pizza deliveries.
And as for the $100,000 contract with Jenner & Block, a law firm the wife of board chairman Michael Curto works for, well the Harvard Business Review says word–of–mouth is the most effective form of advertising.
As a result, even the WaPost editorial board has grown disenchanted. It criticizes MWAA for “picking a largely gratuitous fight” over the PLA and urges it to drop the provision.
And I’m happy to report it did. In Wednesday’s meeting the board removed the PLA by an overwhelming vote, so a check for $150 million from Virginia is in the mail.
Now the only remaining hurdle is the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. If they opt out of phase II, it will delay and might kill the Dulles airport station. Maybe if the MWAA promises the rail line will be opened with a ribbon cutting and not a christening with a $15,000 bottle of Chateau Lafite, Loudoun supervisors will have fewer qualms about voting yes.
Michael R. Shannon is a public relations and advertising consultant with corporate, government and political experience around the globe. He is a dynamic and entertaining keynote speaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.