Biden’s pick for FAA chief entangled by sheriff’s probe of LA Metro contract

A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into alleged corruption, involving a lucrative contract awarded by the county’s transportation agency to an organization headed by a good friend of county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, has reached the White House.

President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration is former LA Metro CEO Phillip Washington, who played a pivotal role in awarding the contract before he moved on to become CEO of Denver International Airport. In light of the local investigation, at least one U.S. senator wants to ensure Washington is properly vetted before he is confirmed as FAA chief.

The sheriff’s investigation included search warrants issued simultaneously on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at Metro headquarters in downtown L.A. and the homes of Kuehl and Civilian Oversight Commissioner Patti Giggans, who is CEO of the organization Peace Over Violence that received the contract from Metro.

According to the search warrant, the sheriff detectives sought the contract between Metro and POV related to operation of a sexual harassment hotline for the county transportation system. They also wanted call logs and internal evaluations or audits of the hotline and communications between the two entities, Giggans, Kuehl and others, including Washington, from 2014 to 2020.

The contract was approved by Washington without a vote of the board that Kuehl sits on, and it was not subject to competitive bidding, meaning Giggans’ group was the sole source sought by the agency. LA Metro paid out $890,000 from 2014 to 2020 to Giggans’ group, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

FILE – LA Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington speaks during a ground breaking on the SEED LA campus in South Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

The Sheriff’s Department alleges that others at LA Metro found nonprofit agencies willing to do the work for free. Also, a Fox 11 report in September 2020 found the harassment hotline received only a few dozen calls per month, costing LA Metro about $8,000 per call. The Sheriff’s Department called the hotline “a failure.”

“We have partnered with law enforcement and government institutions for more than 51 years to fill the gaps that exist in supporting survivors including operating the nation’s first and longest running sexual assault and domestic violence hotline,” said Peace Over Violence in a statement from Sept. 15.

Washington resigned from LA Metro in May 2021 after serving as CEO for six years. After about a year into his position in Denver, Biden nominated him on July 6 to head the FAA.

Washington must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, a process that now has become more difficult since the search warrants were served and the allegations were splashed across social media, reaching the halls of Congress.

On the same day as the local searches, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology, issued a statement saying the committee and the Senate at large will be bringing more scrutiny to Washington, intimating a successful confirmation of Biden’s nominee may be problematic.

In the statement, Wicker said he was “deeply troubled” to learn Biden’s nominee was named in the search warrant and tied to allegations of corruption at LA Metro.

“The committee’s vetting process will require additional scrutiny and review into his leadership at LA Metro,” Wicker said. He did not elaborate on what kind of extra investigating he would pursue. And there is no date set for the committee to vote on Washington’s appointment to head the FAA.

Wicker added: “I anticipate that this nominee’s credibility will also be a key focus of the committee.”

A spokesperson from Wicker’s Washington, D.C., office was contacted by email to elaborate on the Sept. 14 statement released by the senator, but he did not respond to requests for further comment.

A White House official who asked not to be named wrote a response to questions in an email received on Monday, Sept. 19: “His (Washington’s) nomination is working its way through the Senate and will be evaluated through that process. We’re going to let that process play out, but don’t have anything more.”

Messages left for Washington at Denver airport were not answered.

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The search warrant relies on a whistleblower who worked at LA Metro and said the contract for the hotline was “pushed forward” by Washington so he could remain “in good graces” with Kuehl, a Metro board member. The warrant also alleges a bill for $75,000 from POV arrived on the whistleblower’s desk, and when she confronted Washington, he told her to pay it out of the purchase order process normally used for office supplies. It went on to say Washington told her he did not want to upset Kuehl’s friends by disputing the bill.

The warrant, however, has run into legal roadblocks. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has ordered the Sheriff’s Department to cease searching the computers seized from the offices of L.A. County Metro’s inspector general. A court hearing is set for Thursday, Sept. 22.

The judge said the Sheriff’s Department went around an order by Judge Eleanor Hunter. In nearly identical warrants issued last year, Hunter had already stated she would appoint a special master to oversee future searches, due to the possibility that the inspector general’s computers could contain information protected by attorney-client privilege.

Kuehl, meanwhile, has accused Sheriff Alex Villanueva of targeting her and Giggans in retaliation for their calls for his resignation. Both have been outspoken critics of Villanueva for years and have said the sheriff’s probe is an attempt at intimidation.

Related links

Judge halts sheriff’s search of computers seized in investigation of Supervisor Kuehl
County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl blasts sheriff for search of her home
Here are the major players behind the alleged contract scandal at LA Metro

Staff Writer Jason Henry contributed to this article.

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