GSA sends long-awaited answers to senators on FBI headquarters plan

Members of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works now hold one more piece of the Trump administration’s rationale to suddenly reverse course on the construction of a new FBI headquarters.

Since February, members of the committee have waited for a response from both the General Services Administration and the FBI regarding its decision to scrap a decade-long plan to move the FBI’s headquarters to a consolidated campus in suburban Virginia or Maryland.

Instead, both agencies say they intend to build a new agency headquarters on the site of the J. Edgar Hoover building in downtown Washington, D.C.

“Last night, finally, GSA submitted to the committee their answers to the questions for the record way beyond the time they were due,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the committee’s chairman, said during a Wednesday committee business meeting.

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However, senators still haven’t received a response from the FBI. Barrasso said he sent a message to the agency requesting “expedited delivery of these past-due answers.”

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) expressed concern about reports from Axios that President Donald Trump has personally expressed opposition to moving the FBI out of D.C.

“I think we got a lot of revealing information,” Van Hollen said.

At a February hearing, Dan Mathews, the commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, and Richard Haley, the assistant director of the FBI’s Finance Division, declined to say whether Trump or senior White House officials played a role in the new direction for the FBI headquarters.

Following that hearing, Van Hollen said the officials reached out to Barrasso’s staff to correct the record on their responses to that question.

“We had some testimony that day where the witnesses, at least on the record, said that there had not been close contact with GSA and FBI and either the president or senior White House officials. After the hearing was over, they had to send you over a correction for the record,” Van Hollen said.

The Government Accountability Office, in a 2011 report, highlighted security concerns with the location of the J. Edgar Hoover building.

“There is no dispute that the security needs that the FBI wants, the level of security that they want, cannot be achieved at the D.C. location,”  Cardin said.

Following that report, lawmakers sought to move the FBI to a consolidated campus setting, similar to the Central Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency’s headquarters.

“I do hope this committee will take a close look at that original GAO report and the original intent behind Congress,” Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen, who also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, played a leading role in blocking further funding to the FBI headquarters plan in the fiscal 2018 spending bill and the upcoming 2019 spending bill.

The Trump administration didn’t request further congressional funding for either of those years.

“I think the appropriators are doing the right thing,” Cardin said. “But it’s our committee’s jurisdiction to approve the prospectus, to make sure that we’re in agreement as to what is being done. We’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar construction here. It could be the largest single construction that any of us will ever vote on in the United States Senate.”

Lawmaker suggests setting requirements for FBI headquarters plan

If the Trump administration insists that the FBI remains in D.C., Cardin said the committee should consider passing a resolution that spells out some of the requirements the new FBI headquarters plan must meet to go forward.

Meanwhile, the federal government has already spent $20 million over more than 12 years on the consolidated campus project.

In addition, Cardin said contractors in the metro D.C. area had also sunk money into plans to move the FBI to Virginia or Maryland.

“Not only did the government waste a lot of money, but contractors who were operating in good faith lost tens of millions of dollars,” he said.

The Axios report claims Trump has criticized the Hoover building’s Brutalist architecture, reportedly calling it “one of the ugliest buildings in the city.”

“The president’s concerns have been specifically expressed that he doesn’t like the way the building looks, and is clearly more concerned about the appearance of the building than the usefulness of the building from the point of view of the FBI’s mission,” Cardin said.

In a statement Monday, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) expressed concern with the president’s intervention on this real estate project.

“Having President Trump micromanage this complex procurement — with so many other issues on his plate and so many questions about apparent conflicts of interest here — just isn’t helpful to these public servants or to the region,” Kaine and Warner said.

In March, GSA’s Inspector General Carol Ochoa said her office would review the Trump administration’s reversal on plans for the FBI headquarters.

The agency watchdog stepped in following a request from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee’s government operations subcommittee.

A spokesman for Connolly said Wednesday that the congressman’s office hadn’t received documents about the FBI headquarters from GSA, but said the IG’s report should be released “in a few weeks.”