President Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stood before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Wednesday and faced one of his biggest critics, ranking Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
The confirmation hearing dug into Phil Washington’s credentials, experience in aviation, and allegations of discriminatory and retaliatory practices at his current position as CEO of Denver International Airport (DIA).
The FAA has been run under interim administrator Billy Nolen since last April, according to The New York Times. President Joe Biden selected Washington to head the FAA in July, but his path to confirmation has been rocky.
Some lawmakers raised concerns that Washington has insubstantial experience in the aviation industry and that he was implicated in a corruption scandal during his time at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (LA Metro), where he was named CEO in 2015.
Washington had awarded a contract to run a Metro sexual harassment hotline to a close friend of an LA Metro board member, according to Fox News. The hotline was found to incur costs of up to $8,000 per call, according to Fox LA.
Leading up to the confirmation hearing on March 1, Cruz had asked senators to delay it in order to investigate new charges levied against Washington.
“Last week, we discovered he failed to disclose to the committee that he’s been named in a new lawsuit alleging discriminatory and retaliatory practices at Denver’s airport,” Cruz said, per Fox News. “Mr. Washington’s hearing needs to be delayed until the Committee has time to investigate new concerns about his nomination.”
DIA’s former parking director, Benjamin Juarez, has alleged that the City of Denver allowed intolerable working conditions and that he faced ongoing threats to his job, according to a report from Axios.
During Washington’s leadership, Juarez, who is Hispanic, made several complaints about pay disparity, saying white colleagues received higher salaries and alleged his now-fired supervisor made racist comments.
“My client was continually making complaints” and contacted Washington at least twice for help, his attorney, Steven Murray, told Axios.
Despite Cruz’s misgivings, the confirmation hearing took place and Washington responded to those questioning his suitability to lead the FAA.
During the hearing, Washington denied the allegations of corruption, affirmed his commitment to diversity in the workplace, and defended his resumé.
“As a military veteran and leader of three large transportation organizations, my broad transportation safety knowledge and real world leadership experiences provide me a unique perspective on how aviation on all modes of transportation should integrate into a seamless system,” Washington said, per CNN.
Democrats also came to Washington’s defense during the hearing.
While noting that the nominee is “not an airline industry insider,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) said, per CNN, that the leader of the FAA had to be capable of “managing a large complex bureaucracy badly in need of modernization.”
“Certainly in that respect he’s no novice,” said Hickenlooper.
Cruz remained steadfast in his opposition, saying in his opening remarks, “The nominee before us, Phil Washington, doesn’t qualify because he has woefully inadequate aviation experience.”
This sentiment was also voiced by Sen. Kirsten Sinema (I-Arizona) who noted, per CNN, that under federal law, the FAA administrator “must have experience in a field directly related to aviation.”
The Senate is expected to decide on Washington’s nomination in the coming weeks.