The airports authority in charge of the $6 billion Dulles Rail project paid an expert on "change" about $7,000 an hour to lead authority members' discussions at annual board retreats, the Washington Examiner has learned.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, under fire from federal investigators for lax ethics rules and questionable contracting practices, awarded a trio of no-bid contracts worth $173,000 to Gregory Shea, a Pennsylvania consultant specializing in "organizational and individual change, group effectiveness and conflict resolution" to coordinate annual sessions that lasted about six to eight hours each.

Authority documents show that Shea was paid $20,000 in 2010, $100,000 in 2011 and $53,000 in 2012 -- averaging about $7,000 per hour.

The authority paid more for Shea than for the retreats at which he appeared. The authority's retreat in April at the exclusive Congressional Country Club in Bethesda cost a little more than $2,100 for food and meeting space, according to the authority. Its 2011 gathering at an Alexandria hotel cost a total of about $3,000.

"These retreats are not extravagant affairs," board Secretary Quince Brinkley said. "It's just a time for these folks to get together to try to figure out how to operate as a board."

Shea would not comment on his work for the authority. His website says he helps executives "become more consistently generative."

The airports authority defended the retreats in which Shea participated, saying they helped airport officials work together at a time when, as board member Tom Davis put it, the board "is so badly divided ... when people are so dug into regional positions."

The board retreats -- and Shea's fees -- are in addition to the $885,000 the board paid earlier for an "organizational study" that also focused on helping officials work more effectively together while enhancing employee satisfaction, among other things.

Authority members first told The Examiner that Shea's contract was only to help facilitate discussion at the retreats. But officials later issued a statement saying Shea also helped the authority "prepare for numerous meetings," consulted on "important organizational change issues" and helped with its search for a new president, though it did not specify how.

Retreats are common for corporate boards, but less typical for public boards of political appointees, like the airports authority. The commission that oversees Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the board overseeing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey don't go on retreats, agency spokesmen said.

Other boards also bring in outsiders to help organize their discussions. The board overseeing Washington's Metro system last year paid a facilitator $105,000 for help at seven meetings, or about $15,000 per meeting.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors went on a two-day retreat in February to discuss county issues and hear staff presentations. But the board met in a county-owned building and one of the supervisors cooked a stew to help cut down on food costs. The total cost of the retreat: $835.