Wednesday, December 14, 2016

In a shift, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority encourages board members to travel

Four years after an ethics scandal put a halt to their expensive trips and gourmet meals, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board members voted Wednesday to introduce a new set of guidelines that encourages them travel more — not less.

Under the new directive, board members are encouraging one another to attend up to three conferences a year and join professional or industry associations that will “further enhance access to information on industry norms, trends and developments.” Those who attend meetings or conferences will be required to submit reports to the authority.

“If we can’t travel, we can’t serve our stakeholders as well as we would like,” said Caren Merrick, who chaired the committee that proposed the changes. She said that allowing board members to attend conferences and industry meetings is in line with “best practices” of other similar boards of which she has been a member.

Wednesday’s action is a significant shift for the board, which tightened travel rules in the wake of a 2012 scandal surrounding lavish spending habits of some members. Even though the board’s composition has largely changed, many new members remain reluctant to travel at the authority’s expense, Merrick said.

“The board felt we should encourage travel within reasonable boundaries,” said board chairman William “Shaw” McDermott, who voted in support of the change, along with nine others. Two board members, Joslyn Williams and Bob Lazaro, abstained from voting.

McDermott said that despite the change, he did not anticipate a significant increase in the 17-member board’s travel budget, which is roughly $80,000 annually. The airports authority is funded through rates, fees and taxes charged to airlines and passengers.

In 2012, a scathing federal inspector general’s report cited questionable travel expenses by board members: a $9,000 business-class ticket booked at the last minute to an aviation conference in Prague and $4,800 in meal expenses, including lobster dinners, at another conference in Hawaii. The report also found that there were no rules governing how often or how much board members could spend on travel related to the airports authority.

In response, the board passed new rules that limited how much they could spend on meals, forced them to pay for their own alcohol and required the board chairman to approve any travel. As a result, board travel was sharply curtailed.

An analysis earlier this year by The Washington Post found that in 2015, three board members attended out-of-town conferences. Other board members received reimbursements because they live outside of the D.C. area, and others billed the authority for mileage or in-town travel expenses. In all, board members spent $36,000 — less than half of their $80,000 travel budget.

MWAA’s board of directors oversee a quasi-public agency that manages Reagan National and Dulles International airports as well as construction of the $5.8 billion Silver Line rail project that will extend Metro service to Dulles Airport and into Loudoun County. It has an annual budget of $2 billion, and its revenue comes from airport concessions and passenger fees, not tax dollars.

Its members serve six-year terms and are appointed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the D.C. mayor and the president. Board members do not receive compensation for their service. The federal statute that created the airports authority requires that the board include representatives from Maryland and the federal government.

McDemott said as part of an effort to be transparent, yearly audits of board travel expenses will be conducted by MWAA’s office of audit.

Even so, while board members are encouraged to share information about their trips with their colleagues, the guidelines appear to discourage them from speaking to the media.

“The Airports Authority’s Media Relations staff should be consulted before providing any statements to the press regarding Board Member conference travel and professional association memberships and other licenses sponsored by the Airports Authority,” the new guidelines state.


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