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Even Phillip Washington’s worst critics praised his impressive 24-year record with the U.S. Army. They also acknowledged his work as CEO of the world’s third-busiest airport in Denver, Colorado, since mid-2021.
But serious bipartisan questions have dogged Washington ever since President Joe Biden nominated him last year to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The nomination is moving forward at a crucial time in the FAA’s history.
Although America has enjoyed an extraordinary safety record with no fatal commercial airline crashes in 14 years, pilots and Congressional leaders say they see safety teetering.
They are worried about recent computer meltdowns, canceled and delayed flights, and a series of scary near-collisions.
During a March 1 committee hearing, senators from both sides of the political aisle said they were concerned about Washington’s lack of “direct aviation experience.”
He also faced searing GOP criticism on two more fronts. He has emphasized diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) policies, including a proposal to spend $40 million on a “Hall of Equity” at the Denver airport.
In addition, Washington faces scrutiny in a pair of incidents.
He remains under investigation for his former Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority role and was recently named “in a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by a former Denver airport employee,” according to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Nominee Denies Wrongdoing
Washington defended himself, saying he has done nothing wrong. He also said that in spite of the importance he has placed on DEI safety remains his top priority.
He believes his leadership skills and his familiarity with aviation at the Denver airport qualify him for the FAA job.
The nominee’s responses didn’t sway Cruz.
“It’s truly remarkable that this committee is considering confirming a nominee in the middle of an ongoing investigation for public corruption,” Cruz said.
Cruz expressed disbelief at the notion that the Senate could be poised to confirm “someone who is not qualified and has no experience in aviation safety, but secondly, doing so while a public corruption case is ongoing.”
He said Washington “was the subject of multiple whistleblower complaints,” and one such person accuses the nominee of retaliation.
“After Mr. Washington went to Denver, LA Metro settled the claims for more than a half-million dollars,” Cruz said.
Cruz was troubled that Washington failed to disclose the Denver airport employee’s lawsuit to the Senate committee, “one of the dozens of omissions in his questionnaire,” Cruz said.
Those omissions raise concerns “about how he will collaborate with us as we work to reauthorize the FAA,” Cruz said.
Through that reauthorization process, Congress is now working on a five-year budget and marching orders for the FAA.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation at times turned her head away from Cruz and bit her lip as he railed against Washington.
Cantwell noted that Washington could become “the first African-American confirmed to serve as the FAA administrator.”
Acting administrator Billy Nolen is also black but he was appointed, not Senate-confirmed.
If Washington is the first black to be confirmed as FAA administrator, “this would be a landmark achievement,” Cantwell said, adding that he would also lay claim to another “first.”
“There has never been an FAA administrator nominee that has come from the enlisted ranks,” Cantwell said. “The U.S. Army taught Mr. Washington how to get things done and get them done right.”
Several Democrats echoed her enthusiasm.
More Hurdles for Nominee
But Cruz, ranking member of the committee, flat-out said he disapproved of Washington as the wrong man for this job.
“The FAA needs a Senate-confirmed leader with decades of experience in aviation to make certain that the flying public is safe,” Cruz said. “This obligation is so important that Congress mandated that the FAA administrator must have experience in a field directly related to aviation.”
But Washington, despite his honorable military career, “does not have any experience in aviation safety,” which should disqualify him from serving as FAA administrator, Cruz said.
In addition, federal law explicitly requires the FAA administrator to be a civilian, Cruz said. But “retired members of the military” do not qualify as civilians.
Cruz said that both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate would have to waive that requirement.
He warned that if Democrats manage to force through Washington’s nomination without such a waiver, “a legal cloud will hang over every single FAA action.”
Then, taking a swipe at Washington’s emphasis on diversity programs, Cruz said, “And with all due respect, Mr. Washington, it gives no comfort to the flying public that their pilot might be a transgendered witch but doesn’t actually know how to prevent the plane from crashing into the ground and killing them.”
“I believe your record is woefully lacking,” Cruz said. “And, in fact, you have zero aviation safety experience. And so I don’t believe you’ll have the votes for confirmation.”
In light of the multiple issues surrounding Washington, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said, “For the life of me, I do not understand why the president persists with this nomination.”
‘Fake Scandals’ Alleged
But several Democrats sprang to Washington’s defense. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) declared, “This is a hatchet job … he’s facing a smear campaign.”
Schatz said people in prominent positions often face baseless allegations and lawsuits.
He said the accusations leveled against Washington were “nonsense” and “immaterial to these proceedings.”
“It’s just a pretext for opposing the nominee’s confirmation to this critical agency,” Schatz said.
“Mr. Washington is a skilled and dedicated public administrator with an extensive record showing that he knows transportation. And, ignoring this, to punish him over fake scandals, is absurd.”
Cruz, however, piled on details about the scandals and other concerns about the way Washington performed in his previous public-sector jobs.
“The Democrat city transit agencies he’s run had been beset by mismanagement and wasteful spending,” Cruz said.
For example, Cruz said he read news reports indicating that Washington “tried to add a $200,000 sauna to the LA Metro employee gym, after being presented with a more taxpayer-friendly $50,000 version.”
At the same time, city buses “broke down and caught fire due to lack of money,” Cruz said.
Cruz said the investigation that Washington faces is “an alleged pay-to-play contracting scheme that resulted in LA Metro giving $800,000 in no-bid contracts to a politically connected charity,” which ran a seldom-used sexual harassment hotline.
Also, a whistleblower alleged that Washington pushed “questionable contracts” forward to keep himself in the good graces of “a powerful politician on the LA Metro board,” Cruz said.
White House Didn’t Check it Out
Cruz said Congress was continuing to investigate. He told Washington that the LA County Sheriff’s Office “executed a criminal search warrant at LA Metro’s headquarters based on these allegations. And you are named in that search warrant not once, not twice, but numerous times.”
Cruz said “even more amazingly” no one from the White House, the FBI, or Senate had contacted the California Attorney General’s Office about its ongoing investigation into Washington’s alleged role.
Washington retorted that he has nothing to hide. He also said that the contract in question was started before his tenure at LA Metro.
“There has been no findings of wrongdoing by me. I stand by the work that was done in this contract,” he said.
Washington said the allegation that he pushed forward the contract was “wrong” and “false.”
Shifting away from the scandals, Sen. Ted Budd (R-NC), who is a pilot, asked Washington several questions about airplanes, regulations, and pilot safety.
After Washington was unable to answer several of those questions to Budd’s satisfaction, Budd appeared to be a bit exasperated and remarked, “Let’s just keep going and see if we can get lucky here.”
Finally, noting several recent near-collisions of airplanes on runways, Budd asked Washington how much distance is supposed to be maintained between two airplanes for safety.
Washington said, “I don’t want to guess on that, senator, but it would be easy for me to find.”
After that, Budd concluded by stating: “The FAA can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training. And for that reason, I’m going to be opposing your nomination.”
History of Public Service
Prior to being questioned, Washington introduced himself to the committee.
He described himself as a lifelong public servant, based on values he learned during his upbringing. He grew up poor, in public housing on Chicago’s South Side. Washington was the only son among six children, supported by a single mother who “worked 12 hours a day to put food on the table for all of us.”
“She taught me to listen and learn from the great faith and civic leaders who lived in and visited the city of Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said.
“This is where I realized my purpose and desire to serve people and be a public servant,” Washington said. “I began my public service and leadership journey nearly 45 years ago when I enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve my country.”
He earned the highest military enlisted rank, command sergeant major.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) later remarked, “No one understands safety better than a command sergeant major. That’s what they exist for. I have no doubt that he understands exactly what his job will be” as FAA administrator.
After retiring from the military, Washington’s jobs in the private sector put him in charge of multibillion-dollar budgets and large workforces.
As FAA head, he would oversee 45,000 employees and a $24 billion budget.
He said his leadership skills and his ability to harness people’s talents would overcome his lack of aviation experience.
“The FAA is at a crossroads,” Washington said. The agency “must protect the safest era of aviation, modernize this technology, lift employee morale,” he said.
“I will own well-intentioned failure and the FAA employees will own their success. I will quicken the pace of public service and leave the FAA better than I found it.”