By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006
The new headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the District is at least $19 million over budget at a time when the agency is considering sharp cuts in the number of new cars, bulletproof vests and other basics it provides agents.
The Justice Department inspector general's office recently received a complaint alleging that ATF Director Carl J. Truscott put through or proposed unnecessary plan changes and upgrades to the 438,000-square-foot building in the past two years, according to four sources familiar with the project.
Truscott met with Acting Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty last week to address some of the complaints, and quickly canceled some of the upgrades he had planned for the new headquarters, according to two sources familiar with these events. A Senate subcommittee is also looking into the cost increases.
Truscott planned to purchase, among other things, nearly $300,000 in extras for the new director's suite, including a $65,000 conference table and more than $100,000 for hardwood floors, custom trim and other items, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. ATF officials said that none of those upgrades has been approved and that the conference table was initially proposed by the architect and replaced in plans with one that costs half as much.
The Justice Department and the inspector general's office declined to comment. Truscott also declined to comment through the ATF press office.
Sources portray Truscott as preoccupied with the project. He has held numerous meetings, some focused on its tiniest details, such as paint colors and soap dishes, they said. He also has organized regular field trips to the building site with senior executives and photographers and has decorated ATF's current offices with oversize photos of the construction, they said.
The sources also said that some ATF officials object to the approximately $1 million annual cost of an extensive security detail for Truscott, who spent 22 years at the Secret Service before coming to ATF. The expenditures pay for five full-time agents and two armored Chevrolet Suburbans, which have not been made available to previous ATF directors or to the heads of comparable agencies, such as the U.S. Marshals Service, according to sources and government records.
ATF spokeswoman Sheree L. Mixell said a $12 million funding cut last year by Congress -- not spending on the building -- was a primary cause of current budget difficulties at the agency. She also said cost overruns for the new headquarters have not been excessive or unexpected.
"The building project is a long-term project that is important to the safety of ATF employees and to the agency's future," Mixell said. "ATF has a responsibility to complete this project."
But the sources said that cost overruns on the building consumed a $13.5 million budget surplus and millions of dollars more from ATF's current operating budget.
ATF officials declined to discuss details of Truscott's security arrangements, but said the agency was planning to increase security before his arrival in April 2004.
In December 2004, Truscott received upgraded protection comparable to that for the heads of the CIA, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and NASA. The new arrangement was made retroactive to January of that year, legislative records show.
The new ATF headquarters, designed by award-winning architect Moshe Safdie, sit across from the New York Avenue Metro station, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city officials have hailed the building as a central component of that area's revitalization efforts. One of the first major federal projects to adhere to stringent security measures enacted after the Oklahoma City bombings, it includes a striking decorative wall that doubles as a blast shield.
The ATF headquarters' contracted price was $119.7 million in May 2004. Now the building, planned for a decade, is expected to cost at least $138.5 million when it is completed later this year, according to the General Services Administration.
ATF has also spent an additional $75 million for site acquisition, design, furniture and other costs, and is reviewing whether further expenditures will be needed before the agency can move into the space on time later this year, officials said.
ATF has paid nearly $15 million of the construction cost increases since 2004, according to agency and GSA officials. Mixell said more than $9 million of the increases is because of extensive design changes that were made necessary by ATF's move from the Treasury Department to Justice and a reorganization of the agency. The rest are primarily because of security modifications related to the project, she said.
But other officials critical of the way the project has been handled said that many of the cost increases should have been foreseen or reduced and that Truscott has pursued expansions and modifications to the project at the expense of ATF's basic operational needs. The director overruled some subordinates by adding about 500 employees in the past year, many of whom do not have desks or office space because of the agency's budget problems, several sources said.
ATF executives have been told to expect cutbacks of 20 to 30 percent in their operating costs this fiscal year. The heads of the agency's eight directorates were required to submit memos two weeks ago outlining cuts under that scenario.
Likely effects include no new cars for the agency, which commonly buys more than 300 vehicles a year, and no bulletproof vests to replace about 500 that are expected to expire this year, sources said.
Meanwhile, they said, Truscott has devoted much of his time to the new headquarters. At one meeting, they said, he and his aides discussed the relative merits of shower curtains vs. shower doors, and soap dispensers vs. soap dishes for the building's gymnasium area, which was redesigned to include more workout space. The consensus was shower curtains and soap dispensers, but towel service was ruled out as too costly, the sources said.
Other meetings focused on the colors of wallcoverings, types of flooring for different areas and details of $2 million worth of educational and historical exhibits, sources said. Managers spent weeks deciding on seating charts for their departments, sources said, even though the building was far from finished.
One source said Truscott added costs by changing a floor tile order in one area because the original design "made him dizzy."
The ATF plays a central role in policing violent crimes, tracking illegal guns and working to prevent explosives from getting into the hands of terrorists. Some ATF officials are frustrated that the agency is facing money shortages despite several years of increased budgets. The agency said its appropriation for salary and expenses has grown from $827 million in 2004 to $911 million in 2006.
"As more and more things were put into the building, other things had to suffer," said one of the sources familiar with the dispute. "This is having an impact on operational accounts."
A GSA spokesman said that none of the expenditures at the ATF site were outside guidelines for such projects. He declined to provide financial documents related to the project, saying that a request would have to be filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mixell said that "ATF is committed to ensuring the safety of our agents," and has submitted a request for funding to the Justice Department to purchase replacement bulletproof vests. She said the agency is also reviewing other options to deal with budget cutbacks, including ways to find money for vehicles.
The commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee has also begun to examine the cost overruns. Katie Boyd, a spokeswoman for subcommittee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), said that "issues have come to his attention and he has begun to ask the tough questions" about the ATF project.
The subcommittee had allowed ATF to "reprogram" $13.5 million in surplus money in fiscal 2005 to cover building costs, but staff members warned agency officials recently that they would not consider a similar request for an additional $7.9 million in 2006, sources said. Boyd said no formal request for extra funding has been made.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.