When Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board member Dennis Martire has on his work hat, he is aggressively advocating for project labor agreements that often result in contractors hiring employees who are represented by unions.
As vice president of Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), Martire has posted numerous articles on his employer’s website praising anyone who uses project labor agreements, such as the Community College of Allegheny County for its K.Leroy Irvis Science Center project.
But some believe Martire may have crossed an ethical line on April 6 when MWAA passed a resolution that supports the pro-union labor agreement for the second phase of extending Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and into eastern Loudoun County. Martire was one of the 11 MWAA members who voted for the resolution.
Critics, including Fairfax Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th), wonder if Martire violated the MWAA board of directors' code of ethics by voting on a resolution that might benefit labor unions like the one for which he works. Numerous employees from his union already work on the first phase of the rail project.
Martire declined a telephone interview request and asked that any questions to him be emailed to a spokesman for LiUNA. Several days later, an MWAA spokeswoman emailed back answers to the questions.
According to the emailed statement, “Under the Board rules, Mr. Martire did not have a conflict because he could not personally benefit from the project labor agreement.”
The MWAA statement says the entire board was aware of Martire’s employment with the international union.
The statement continues: “The vote on the matter was 11-2; had Mr. Martire not voted, there would not have been any difference in the outcome."
Lawmakers have questioned Martire’s actions. Del. Hugo asked Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to investigate whether Martire’s vote violated the code of ethics.
Brian Gottstein, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said he cannot confirm or deny an investigation. He said the office considers all requests from legislators to determine if there is any action that can be taken, “and that is exactly what we are doing in this case.”
Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University and former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., said she doesn’t agree that Martire’s vote on the resolution didn’t matter because it did not change the outcome.
“Every vote counts,” she said. “This idea that ‘my vote wouldn’t count’ does not give you a free pass. If you should not vote, you should not vote.”
Nadler said the best attorneys always told her that to avoid an appearance of a conflict she should not vote on anything that could give the public the perception of a conflict. An MWAA spokeswoman said that Martire's personal attorney said his vote is not a conflict of interest.
“The perception of impropriety is as damaging as an actual impropriety,” Nadler said.
Nadler said the board of directors’ code of ethics mentions that all members should avoid actions that can result in the member losing independence and impartiality. She said she has a hard time grasping the fact that Martire is an active officer with a labor union, yet he does not believe there is even a perception of a conflict when he voted on the resolution for project labor agreements.
“I think a reasonable person could say that the position that he is taking as the union leader is participating in an attempt to entice or influence a decision of the board of directors, which would be a violation of their code,” she said.
Proponents of project labor agreements argue that they guarantee skilled workers on the job who are more safe, in the country legally and most importantly—they are local.
Critics of these agreements argue that they line the pockets of union leaders while increasing project costs because union wages are higher.
Local leaders in Fairfax and Loudoun counties and this labor agreement could become a bigger issue if it increases the final costs.
Nadler said unions "will strike or make your life miserable" when these types of agreements are not used for large projects.
LiUNA represents 40,000 Mid-Atlantic workers. LiUNA’s Mid Atlantic website has several articles and videos about some of its members hired to work on the first phase of the Metrorail extension to Wiehle Avenue in Reston. About 40 percent of the project is complete.
While more state lawmakers called for audits and investigations of MWAA as frustration with the appointed panel grows, Martire has been using LiUNA’s website to advocate for project labor agreements. Martire even posted a link on LiUNA’s website to a blog post that criticizes U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who filed legislation this year that would make it easier to remove MWAA members.
Wolf, who is one of top proponents of the rail project, said the board of directors has lost sight of its primary mission to service airport passengers and residents of the surrounding communities. He has asked for a full audit of MWAA operations and has called the board “dysfunctional.”
Martire’s most-recent post on the LiUNA’s website was on June 1 of a video with the headline: “The Virginia Dulles Metro Rail Project and Local Workers.” Two LiUNA workers are interviewed in the video, and one praises the union for getting him the job.
“My 7-year-old son, this past Christmas, I got him a real gift,” the man said.
Martire posted a letter responding to columnist Michelle Malkin’s criticism of project labor agreements. Malkin said project labor agreements are “anti-competitive agreements” that undermine a fair bidding process. She said Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” was a union-only project that the state’s government had mandated. She said the project’s price ballooned from $2.8 billion to $22 billion, partially because of higher labor costs.
Martire’s letter states that union and nonunion workers have the same opportunity to bid on projects and the lowest bid often determines who gets the project.
“The difference for the taxpayer is that union contractors provide a total package, which includes family health-care coverage, pension, retirement savings and training in addition to an actual living wage,” Martire wrote.
Nadler said the best that might come from this situation is that the general public pays more attention to MWAA and its role in public transportation.
“Generally, these kinds of authorities are just under the radar,” she said. “The public oftentimes doesn’t even know they exist and they have no idea how the decisions are made, so it is extremely important to bring light to these issues.”