A former board member of the authority building the Dulles Rail project flew to Ethiopia at the authority's expense and then used the contacts he made during that trip to win a $42,000 contract from the authority after he left the board, The Washington Examiner has learned.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority awarded a no-bid consulting contract to Leonard Manning in 2011 just months after he left the board, saying that Manning's contacts made him uniquely qualified to negotiate to have Ethiopian flowers delivered to Washington Dulles International Airport.

But Manning made many of those contacts in 2010 when the authority paid more than $20,000 to send him and two other authority officials to Ethiopia to celebrate Ethiopia Airlines' purchase of a Boeing 777, authority documents show.

The authority awarded the contract to Manning as an outside consultant even though two other officials who traveled with him to Ethiopia -- board member H.R. Crawford and a staff member -- were still with the authority.

Manning and Crawford dined with the president of Ethiopia and stayed three nights in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa during their trip. Manning said he got the idea for the flower deal while there.

"I think as a result of that we are seeing cargo coming in from Ethiopia and we expect to see quite a bit more in the near future," he said.

Foreign travel by authority members has strained relations with Virginia officials, who complain that the authority isn't doing enough to control costs. Gov. Bob McDonnell this month ousted an authority member, Dennis Martire, in part because of Martire's foreign travel.

"Individuals on the MWAA board seem to have taken advantage of the unique nature of the authority and have developed rules to suit the situation," Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton said. "These are practices that would not be accepted in any Virginia or other public entities. And they should not be accepted by MWAA."

Crawford defended board members' travel.

"You can't sit out there in Virginia and not travel," he said. "That's one of the purposes of the authority -- you have to be acquainted with what's going on in the industry."

Crawford said the board was invited on that 2010 trip by the Ethiopian government.

"It would have been totally disrespectful not to have attended," he said. "If the top officials in Europe had invited us, we would do the same."

Airports authority staff also defended the trip.

"To fulfill [our] mission, we have to maintain successful partnerships with dozens of airlines and numerous governments," authority spokesman Rob Yingling said. "The engagement with the Ethiopian government and Ethiopian Airlines has been very beneficial to the authority and is fully consistent with our mission."