Senators press Trump administration on FBI headquarters project

A month after the Trump administration abruptly canceled a proposed new headquarters for the FBI, federal officials told a Senate panel Wednesday that they remain committed to the project and could restart the development process by the end of the year.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works expressed frustration at officials from the General Services Administration at having learned that the $1.6 billion project had been canceled from news reports, and they lamented that millions of dollars had been wasted on the abandoned effort.

Maryland and Virginia have been competing for years to land the proposed 2.1 million-square-foot Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters, and the 11,000 jobs expected to come with it. The General Services Administration, the federal government’s real estate arm, said last month it was canceling the project because Congress had not approved enough money.

The claim drew skepticism from the senators, who asked repeatedly whether the White House had inserted itself into the sudden decision. The FBI has been investigating allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia ahead of last year’s election.

"There's been a waste of taxpayer money — a significant waste of money — and we've compromised the FBI's ability to carry out its critical mission," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who sits on the committee. "That is plainly unacceptable."

Michael Gelber, acting commissioner of the General Services Administration's public buildings service, said the agency had spent about $20 million — most of it unrecoverable — on the procurement process. Gelber said Congress had fallen $882 million short of the money needed to keep the process on track.

Though Congress has not paid for the building in full, lawmakers have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for the project, which Gelber said may still be used in the future. Still, any delay in the process will make that pot of funding a target for other priorities. House Republicans have included language in a spending bill that would rescind a portion of that money.

Pressed on whether the White House was involved in halting the process, Gelber said the move was made by career officials at the General Services Administration. President Donald J. Trump has not taken a public stance on the building. His administration did not include funding for the project in its budget this year.

Gelber told the committee that the agency and the FBI decided that "moving forward without full funding would put the government at risk for project cost escalations.”

“It is fair to say that the cancellation of the procurement was not the desired outcome,” Gelber said.

But there were signs of hope for the project, which many observers say will eventually be needed despite the high cost. To begin with, Gelber said that “the need for the FBI to have a modern headquarters remains.” And the ire at the GSA’s handling of the project, meanwhile, appeared to be bipartisan.

“I have no doubt that there's a need to replace the FBI's existing headquarters,” said committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican. “The security and efficiency arguments for their case is clear. What is not clear is why the project was suddenly halted, why Congress was not notified in advance and what happens now.”

Barrasso pressed the GSA and FBI officials to commit to presenting a “workable solution to the FBI’s headquarter needs” within 120 days, or by the end of November. Gelber said that he would do so.

Exactly how much work that will entail remains unclear. Gelber said the project was “not quite at square one,” but “from a procurement standpoint, we will need to initiate a new procurement.”

The GSA said in 2014 that the project would be built at one of three locations: Greenbelt or Landover in Prince George’s County or Springfield, Va.

Cardin asked whether the agency would focus on those three sites as it moves forward with a new plan to build the headquarters. Those sites have already undergone extensive environmental review, and they have support from local officials in Maryland and Virginia.

“I don't understand ‘almost square one,’ ” Cardin said. “If I understand your authority, you could select a site today. … Where am I wrong?”

“We could, in fact, select a site, as you stated,” Gelber said.

That could be a significant concession, potentially allowing the GSA to move forward more quickly than previously thought.

Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia — both Democrats — said Wednesday that they were “blindsided” by the cancellation last month.

“The explanations provided by FBI and GSA so far have been evasive, and the timing of the decision was suspect since it came 66 days after Congress gave the project a half-billion dollars,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “We also are concerned that a decision of $2 billion magnitude apparently was made when neither FBI nor GSA had a permanent, Senate-confirmed executive in place.”

Trump has not nominated an administrator to lead the GSA, the agency that oversees federal property. A nominee would face difficult questions from Congress about another real estate project — the Old Post Office building in Washington — which Trump renovated into a luxury hotel last year before the election.

Democrats are eager to point out that Trump International Hotel is leasing the building from the GSA despite a clause in the contract that says no “elected official ... shall be admitted to any share or part of this lease.” The GSA has said that the clause does not apply because Trump has resigned from his company.

There has been criticism for years over the way the GSA structured the FBI deal, specifically the plan to give the developer of the new building the rights to also develop the FBI's current headquarters to offset the cost. The J. Edgar Hoover Building, six blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, sits in a tony part of downtown Washington, and some believe it could fetch a higher price if sold independently of the FBI project.

A leading justification offered by supporters of a new building — both Democrat and Republican — is that the 42-year-old Hoover Building is in serious disrepair, and cannot accommodate all the agency’s headquarters employees. The FBI’s Washington-based workforce is scattered among about two dozen annex buildings in the region, which costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year in leases.

The Hoover building, opened in 1975, needs an estimated $80.5 million in repairs and upgrades. Parts of the building have been covered in netting to prevent chunks of concrete from falling to the sidewalk below.

Richard L. Haley II, assistant director of the FBI’s finance division, told the Senate committee that the netting had been in place so long that it had worn out and needed replacement. Haley also described pipes that are rusting from the inside out.

“Those issues are still there,” Haley said.

“Having entities spread out all over town means that you’re spending much of your day driving from one location to another through D.C. traffic just to try to get around,” he said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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