Cliff Owen / AP file photo

GSA Watchdog Raises Questions on Canceled FBI Headquarters Move

Leaked draft report suggests GSA head may have misspoken on the extent of the White House’s involvement in the decision.

The latest wrinkle in the on-again-off-again plans for a new FBI headquarters came via a press leak.

The inspector general for the General Services Administration, according to a partial draft report provided to The Washington Post, is fine-tuning criticisms suggesting a stronger White House role than GSA officials had previously indicated in the July 2017 sudden cancellation of bidding on construction of a new FBI complex out in Washington’s suburbs.

General Services Administration Administrator Emily Murphy, the Post noted, at a House Appropriations Committee hearing last April mentioned discussions of funding a renovated downtown building with the Office of Management and Budget, but allegedly “downplayed the role of the White House” in the decision to cancel the bidding process.

The IG report, expected in the next few weeks, is expected to say Murphy’s testimony “was incomplete and may have left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with the president or senior White House officials about the project.”

In answer to a query from Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., Murphy had said, “The direction that we got came from the FBI. It was the FBI that directed to GSA as to what its requirements would be. We obviously did coordinate, given that it is a substantial budget request, we coordinated that request with OMB to provide for funding but the requirements were generated by the FBI.”

The Post quoted an anonymous source saying that Murphy had discussed the project with President Trump, Jared Kushner and other White House staff such as Chief of Staff John Kelly.

The draft IG report also reportedly suggests that cost estimates of keeping the headquarters downtown are unrealistic.

A second GSA executive also got caught up in the nuances of White House involvement with the law enforcement agency’s plans for moving, the Post noted. GSA’s Public Buildings Service Commissioner Daniel Mathews assured senators back in February that he had not discussed the project with President Trump. He later clarified in a letter to Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that he had misheard the question, and that he had discussed the subject during meetings with other high-level White House staff.

Last year’s cancellation of the FBI construction project after years of bidding and jockeying angered many Washington-area lawmakers whose contractor and federal employee constituents were counting on a new, far larger FBI headquarters in Maryland or Virginia to replace the crumbling structure downtown on Pennsylvania Avenue. And some have expressed suspicion of the possible benefits to the Trump business empire of keeping the FBI downtown.

The GSA inspector general office, led by Carol Fortine Ochoa, told Government Executive on Wednesday that it does not comment on ongoing work.

GSA Press Secretary Pam Dixon said in an emailed statement that it is “premature to publicly comment on any DRAFT report, especially without seeing the alleged incomplete version of a leaked copy you may be relying on. Additionally, and in accordance with standard procedure, any comments GSA would provide in response to a DRAFT report would first be sent to the GSA IG’s office for their awareness and incorporation as they complete their review.”

The GSA statement reiterated that Murphy’s testimony before the House panel “was accurate and truthful. The decision for the FBI headquarters to remain at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue was the FBI’s decision, as testified to by the FBI before Congress. Further, GSA stands behind the joint FBI Headquarters Revised Nationally-Focused Consolidation report that GSA and FBI submitted to Congress in February 2018, including our analysis of relevant costs.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who had long favored moving the FBI to Springfield, Va., told Government Executive on Wednesday, “The FBI headquarters decision was tainted by President Trump’s conflicts of interest and left many of us wondering how GSA could come to such a flawed decision. Seemingly every day there is a new revelation of questionable decisions made by the administration. It is why I requested the inspector general review this process, and I hope the final report will resolve these questions.” 

Also on Wednesday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wrote to Murphy asking for more information on Trump's own involvement in the FBI HQ plans and complaining of a lack of "substance" in GSA responses. "According to White House statements in recent news reports, President Trump has strong feelings about the project and intends to be very involved," the senator wrote. "Can you confirm that the president has communicated with GSA officials on this issue, and if so, please provide details on those conversations.”