Questions surrounding the handling of a no-bid contract when Phil Washington led Los Angeles’ transit agency followed him to Denver International Airport last year. Now the active political corruption investigation threatens to stall the DIA CEO’s nomination to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, according to recent news reports.
Search warrants served in Los Angeles last week by sheriff’s investigators have rekindled a whistleblower’s allegations of improper contracting while Washington led the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, more commonly called L.A. Metro.
Washington stepped down as CEO in spring 2021, after six years, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock tapped him to lead DIA a few months later. At the time, Washington denied any wrongdoing and defended his handling of the contract.
But the L.A. investigation — which is entangled in local political spats between elected leaders — has given new grist for Republicans in Congress to oppose his July nomination by President Joe Biden to be FAA administrator.
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the ranking Republican on the committee reviewing the nomination, said last week that he was “deeply troubled” about Washington’s potential involvement. At the same time, Politico in recent days has cited sources who say committee Democrats may move Washington forward with less urgency, potentially stalling a confirmation hearing and vote until late this year or even into 2023.
An affidavit filed with last week’s search warrants contained little new information that had not already been reported a year ago, before Washington’s appointment as airport CEO was confirmed by the Denver City Council. Washington doesn’t appear to be the main target of the investigation.
The affidavit indicates the probe’s primary focus is whether more than $800,000 in contracts to run a sexual harassment hotline were given to a well-connected nonprofit group called Peace Over Violence in exchange for campaign donations to an elected L.A. County supervisor who serves on L.A. Metro’s board. The document cites the potential for bribery charges.
The search warrant affidavit alleges that, according to the whistleblower, Washington awarded the Peace Over Violence contract to remain “in good graces” with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a close friend of Patti Giggans, the nonprofit’s head. Washington was named in the warrants among officials whose emails and communications about the contract were being sought.
Search warrants were served Sept. 14 at L.A. Metro offices, Kuehl’s home, Giggans’ home and Peace Over Violence’s office. Complicating matters is that both Kuehl and Giggans are vocal critics of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose office is investigating the matter.
Amid accusations of improper searches, a judge last week ordered sheriff’s officials to stop searching certain L.A. Metro computers that were seized.
In June 2020, Washington told The Denver Post that the whistleblower had “organized a well-orchestrated attempt to assassinate my character,” adding in a later interview: “The contract was done in accordance to all of our rules, and I stand by that contract.”
He again called the allegations false in an interview with Bloomberg at a conference last week. On Tuesday, a DIA spokeswoman declined an interview request on his behalf.
In recent days, Hancock has reiterated his support for Washington, calling him “a phenomenal CEO for the airport.”
“The same stories that were circulated to hurt his confirmation by Denver City Council were unfounded then and remain unfounded today and were rightly rejected,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. “The same will happen with the United States Senate and his confirmation as the new Director of the FAA.”
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