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The investigation of unethical practices at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority reached a new level Friday when the authority was the subject of a congressional hearing.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure grilled MWAA President and CEO John “Jack” Potter and Board of Directors Chairman Michael Curto about the issues raised in a recent report from the U.S.Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General.

U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla. 7th) said he called the hearing because MWAA has become “a poster child for corruption.”

“This is to see what went wrong and make sure that it is corrected,” he said. “Also, people need to be held accountable.”

The inspector general’s report, released Nov. 1, found MWAA to have lax contracting and hiring practices and insufficient ethics policies, leading to improper contracting processes, charges of nepotism and ethical lapses such as accepting gifts from contractors doing business with the authority.

The inspector general’s findings have been turned over to the FBI, which is investigating any possible criminal charges, according to Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel III, who also testified at the hearing.

Other hearing panelists included U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va. 11th), who shared his perspective of the authority and discussed legislation he is co-sponsoring with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va. 10th); and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who discussed his efforts to provide oversight to the authority.

LaHood and Scovel credited Potter and the MWAA Board of Directors with taking quick action to address the issues when they were first raised in May. However, they said, there is still work to be done.

“They have taken numerous, positive steps,” Scovel said. However, he added, he is reserving judgment “Until we have seen a record of execution and data to substantiate that the improvements on paper are carried out.”

Much of the MWAA board has recently turned over and Potter is filling three high-level staff positions within the agency that are referenced in the inspector general’s report. As of Friday, Potter said seven of the staff members mentioned in the report for unethical behavior are “no longer with us or are in the process of being no longer with us.” He said he is working with the inspector general’s office to identify any additional employee actions that may be needed.

“We are determined to clean house and let the chips fall where they may,” said MWAA Board Vice Chairman Tom Davis, who is also a former Republican Congressman and came to the hearing to support Curto and Potter.

Some committee members seemed somewhat surprised to learn that two of the people cited for missteps, Potter and Curto, are also the ones leading the effort to restructure the authority.

The law firm where Curto’s wife works was awarded a $100,000 sole-source contract for legal consultation, following a recommendation from Curto. Curto says his wife did not benefit from the contract but acknowledged the “appearance of a conflict of interest.”

“In Washington, there is a lawyer on every corner,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md. 4th). “For appearances purposes … it sure would make sense to find another lawyer.”

Potter hired former board member Mame Reilly for a newly created position with a salary of $180,000 without following standard hiring practices, Scovel said. Reilly’s contract was terminated following a letter from LaHood and regional elected officials.

“In hindsight, my judgment was not good,” Potter said, although he said the authority does still need the services Reilly was providing and he hopes to contract out for them at some point in the future.

By all accounts, the authority has taken steps to improve its contracting and hiring practices and support more ethical practices within MWAA. The board has adopted new travel and ethics policies and is revising its human resources and contracting manuals, among other steps.

“The key will be implementation and enforcement,” Scovel said.

LaHood said he has confidence in Potter and Curto and he believes MWAA can move back to solid footing.

“I believe they’re on the right track,” he said.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com