Biden’s pick to lead FAA faces murky road to confirmation

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, Phillip A. Washington, is facing an uncertain path to confirmation amid concerns about his limited aviation experience and his entanglement in a public corruption investigation.

Biden nominated Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport, in July, but he has not yet received a confirmation hearing in the Senate. Because the current Congress ends in early January, the president will need to renominate Washington next year, and a White House spokesperson would not say whether he planned to do so.

“The FAA has a crucial safety mandate, and filling this role remains a serious priority for the Biden administration,” the spokesperson, Olivia Dalton, said.

The uncertainty about Washington’s nomination comes as the FAA is facing a long list of challenges. With air travel returning in force after cratering during the coronavirus pandemic, the agency has received a stream of complaints from travelers over flight delays and cancellations. It is also grappling with issues like improving safety oversight in the aftermath of the Boeing 737 Max crashes, shoring up staffing for the air traffic control system and regulating electric air taxis.

The agency has been without permanent leadership since the end of March, when Stephen Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive who was appointed by President Donald Trump, resigned about halfway through his five-year term as FAA administrator. Billy Nolen, the agency’s top safety official, has been in charge since Dickson’s departure.

Washington, 64, would come to the agency with a short aviation resume. Before being hired to a series of transportation positions, he served in the U.S. Army for 24 years, achieving the rank of command sergeant major. In 2000, he joined Denver’s Regional Transportation District, which operates bus routes and rail lines, and became its general manager and chief executive in 2009.

In 2015, he became the CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the county’s rail and bus systems. Last year, he was chosen to run Denver’s airport, which is one of the busiest in the world.

He also has ties to Biden and his team. Washington was a co-chair of the Biden campaign’s infrastructure policy committee, and he led the Biden transition team for the Transportation Department. The FAA is a part of that department.

But his nomination has not been greeted with a flood of support from Biden’s party on Capitol Hill. Most Democrats on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation did not respond when their offices were asked by The New York Times if they supported Washington’s confirmation.

The panel’s chair, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said time constraints had pushed the confirmation process into next year. A spokesperson for Cantwell, Ansley Lacitis, said the senator was “looking forward to the nomination hearing and asking questions about strengthening FAA’s independence and safety oversight, building its workforce capacity and making sure the FAA is the global gold standard for safety.”

A handful of factors have clouded the status of Washington’s nomination, including questions about the brevity of his career in aviation.

When Biden announced his selection of Washington, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the top Republican on the commerce committee, said he was “skeptical because of the nominee’s lack of experience in aviation.” He added, “This position requires extensive knowledge of the industry in order to ensure the safety and efficiency of the agency and American air travel.”

Washington has also faced scrutiny over his time running the transit system in Los Angeles, with his name surfacing in a messy political spat that has played out in recent months in the nation’s most populous county.

In September, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department executed a search warrant at the home of a county supervisor, Sheila Kuehl, as part of what the department described as a public corruption investigation. The inquiry involved a series of no-bid contracts awarded by the transit system, known as Metro, to a nonprofit to operate a sexual harassment hotline.

The warrant said that according to a whistleblower, Washington had “pushed forward” a contract with the nonprofit “in order to remain ‘in good graces’” with Kuehl, who was a member of Metro’s board of directors. The warrant added that the whistleblower confronted Washington about a $75,000 bill from the nonprofit and that he instructed her to pay it through a process used for office supplies.

The search was itself contentious. The sheriff, Alex Villanueva, had a history of clashing with other officials and had been accused of using investigations to target his adversaries, though he claimed to have recused himself in the inquiry into the nonprofit contracts. The nonprofit’s executive director, Patricia Giggans, whose home was also searched, is a friend of Kuehl’s and was appointed by her to the civilian oversight commission for the sheriff’s department. Both Kuehl and Giggans had previously called for Villanueva’s resignation.

Days after the searches, the California attorney general, Rob Bonta, took control of the investigation from the sheriff’s department, saying that the move was in the “public interest.” In November, Villanueva lost reelection.

Wicker said in September that he was “deeply troubled” by the news of the search warrant and that Washington’s tenure in Los Angeles required further scrutiny.

In an interview, Washington said the allegations against him were untrue and had been made by a disgruntled employee who was disciplined for mistreating co-workers. The inquiry by the sheriff’s department had already become public when the Denver City Council confirmed him last year to run the city’s airport.

“When I pursued the job in Denver for the airport, much to the credit of the Denver City Council, they looked into all of this and debunked it all, and so I would ask Congress to do the same,” Washington said.

Washington said it was telling that California’s attorney general had taken the investigation away from the sheriff’s department. He said he hoped that the attorney general’s inquiry would ultimately shed more light on the situation so he could clear his name. The attorney general’s office declined to comment.

Washington’s supporters have dismissed the investigation by the sheriff’s department as a political ploy.

“We spoke to folks in Los Angeles, high-ranking officials looking into the matter, and the people we spoke with gave us their unqualified opinion that this is just politics being played and Phil was not involved at all,” said Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, who nominated Washington for the airport job.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., a former Denver mayor, credited Washington for his leadership of the city’s airport and said there was nothing in the Los Angeles investigation that diminished his suitability to lead the FAA.

Hickenlooper, who sits on the commerce committee, said he would press to have a hearing for Washington as soon as possible.

“I remain unabashed,” he said, adding, “I’m going to push really hard to make sure that we can get it in January.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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