BWI job search stirs up a fracas

Recruiting firm's barbs have officials talking legal action

April 03, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Maryland transportation officials said yesterday that they are still searching for a new airport director and are considering taking legal action against an executive search firm that resigned Monday amid accusations that the hiring process was tainted by state officials.

The Maryland Aviation Commission, which oversees Baltimore-Washington International Airport, voted March 13 to recommend that Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari hire Paul J. Wiedefeld, a Baltimore construction and engineering executive with extensive experience managing state transportation projects. Wiedefeld has been interviewed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, but no offer has yet been extended and a spokesman for Porcari said the position remains open.

Boyden Global Executive Search partner Tim McNamara complained that his firm has been cut out of the hiring process, prompting him to send a letter of resignation that raised questions about the selection process. Wiedefeld was not among the candidates selected by Boyden in a nationwide search that began nine months ago.

"It's the first public-sector search in 16 years where we haven't been in the loop from the get-go of the entire search," said McNamara, whose firm was paid $50,000 plus expenses to conduct the search. "The integrity of the process is not there when there are multiple processes going on at the same time."

Porcari's office said it was blindsided by the resignation and McNamara's public comments about the search, first reported in the Washington Post yesterday.

"Our legal team is reviewing the potential breach of contract and the breach of confidence by the executive search firm," said Jack Cahalen, a spokesman for Porcari. He declined to comment on the status of the search, which has been narrowed to a "few candidates."

McNamara's accusations come at a turbulent time for the region's busiest airport, which is still recovering from the after-effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a sluggish economy. The airport has been searching for a permanent executive director since David L. Blackshear was forced to resign amid accusations that he made racist and sexist remarks to two staffers. Blackshear discounted the complaints, saying they were a result of political meddling by airport staff with close ties to the governor.

Some airport commission members defended their candidate yesterday, saying there was no political pressure from the governor or transportation secretary to pick Wiedefeld.

"There was no kind of shenanigans and no kind of pressure from any of the political people to do anything of this sort," said Robert Linowes, a Washington attorney and senior member of the aviation commission.

Wiedefeld, 48, is vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff, a construction and engineering firm that has designed numerous BWI capital projects and is handling the airport's $1.8 billion expansion.

He held several high-level planning positions within the state Transportation Department before leaving for the private sector in 1994, but has no experience in airport or aviation management.

Proponents say Wiedefeld would bring with him critical knowledge of mass transit systems and valuable connections that he developed during his tenure as MDOT's director of the office of systems planning and evaluation, and later as manager of Parsons in Baltimore, an international firm that has played a role in almost every major transportation project in the state.

"This guy knows numbers, he knows capital projects, he knows procurement and construction," said O. James Lighthizer, former transportation secretary. "He is a solid guy, a real professional. He is a good choice. I wouldn't hesitate to hire him for that job if I were secretary today."

Nicholas J. Schaus, a former deputy administrator at BWI, also praised Wiedefeld, saying he worked well with airport staff on various capital projects during his tenure. Schaus pointed out that two former airport directors - Karl Sattler and James Truby - also lacked major airport experience before coming to BWI.

"[Wiedefeld] knows transportation planning from the top levels," Schaus said.

Though hired to vet all candidates, Boyden was never asked to interview Wiedefeld or check his background before the aviation commission made its decision.

At least one commission member questioned the decision to exclude the hired consultants.

"I was surprised by the ... lack of interface with the consultant," said George Ferris, a commission member and chairman of brokerage firm Ferris Baker Watts. He declined to comment on whether political pressure played a role in the selection.

Executive search experts said it is not unusual for clients to find candidates on their own. But typically those candidates are passed along to the search firm, which conducts the interviews and background checks.

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