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House Democrats Again Challenge White House Story on FBI Headquarters

New emails contradict spokeswoman statement that staying in D.C. saves money.

The ongoing dispute over the Trump administration’s cancellation of a plan to move the FBI headquarters to the Washington suburbs deepened on Friday when five Democratic House members released emails that appear to challenge White House claims that keeping the FBI offices in downtown Washington helps taxpayers.

In a letter to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the lawmakers sought to discredit a statement two weeks ago by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that President Trump—whose own involvement in the change of plans for the FBI has been criticized because of his business interests—wanted to “save the government money.”

“By blocking competitors from purchasing the existing FBI headquarters property across the street from the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, White House officials had already warned internally that the president’s plan would cost the American taxpayers millions of dollars more—and accommodate thousands fewer—than the longstanding plan to move the FBI headquarters to a new suburban campus,” said the letter from Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md;  Gerry Connolly, D-Va.; Dina Titus, D-Nev.; Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

“These new documents raise serious questions about whether Ms. Sanders issued her statements with knowledge of these facts or, alternatively, without taking basic steps to confirm their accuracy,” the lawmakers wrote.  “Either way, the White House should not be issuing false claims to justify or conceal President Trump’s conflicts of interest on this matter.”

The same group of Democrats has also challenged General Services Administrator Emily Murphy’s accounts of whether the White House directed her agency’s handling of the FBI headquarters project, which has been of keen interest to House members and senators from the Washington area.

All five signatories are ranking members on congressional oversight committees and would be in a stronger position to chase down the story behind Trump changes in FBI headquarters policy if Democrats take control of the House in next week’s elections.

A newly released email also suggests that cost problems of the Trump approach were clear to the White House and GSA staff as they prepared to field questions from Congress.

The “hardest-hitting FBI HQ question” that Murphy would face, as the lawmakers’ letter summarized a Feb. 13, 2018, email, is built around the fact that, compared with the cancelled plan for relocating to a new suburban campus, the Trump plan “proposes a less secure facility” and “has a higher per seat cost,” while not accounting for “additional associated with moving FBI employees to other locations outside” the national capital region or enabling “the federal government to realize the proceeds associated with disposing of” the aging J. Edgar Hoover building. “How is this a good deal for FBI or taxpayers?” asked the email’s author, Office of Management and Budget Deputy Associate Director Andrew Abrams, writing to GSA deputy Brennan Hart.

“This email confirms that the White House knew internally what the inspector general would not report until months later—the fact that suddenly abandoning the relocation plan in favor of the renovation plan would cost the American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more while housing far fewer employees,” the lawmakers wrote.

The difference, according to the IG, is that the cancelled plan to relocate would have cost an estimated $3.565 billion, offset in part by selling the existing Pennsylvania Avenue property to commercial developers. By contrast, the lawmakers argued, “it would cost an estimated $3.844 billion to retain the Pennsylvania Avenue property, demolish the existing facility, and construct a new building.”

The Democrats also disputed Sanders’ statement that the FBI favors remaining at the existing headquarters site, citing Director Christopher Wray’s ambivalent statements.

The letter to Kelly requested an array of related documents and a timeline on the FBI headquarters decision-making process by Nov. 15.

GSA has maintained that Administrator Murphy has been accurate in her statements and testimony on both the FBI’s wishes, its cost analysis of the project and its denial of any awareness of White House involvement.

The White House did not respond to Government Executive inquiries by publication time.