The administrator of the General Services Administration, which manages the FBI headquarters project, may have misled Congress about White House involvement in the project, according to a portion of a soon-to-be published report from the agency’s inspector general that was obtained by The Washington Post.
Last year the GSA and the FBI scrapped a long-delayed plan to build an FBI headquarters campus in the Washington suburbs in favor of a proposal to build a smaller headquarters in downtown D.C. and relocate some staff to Alabama, Idaho and West Virginia.
President Trump has said he supported the new plan. Although GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, speaking to the House Appropriations Committee in April, mentioned discussions of funding with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, she downplayed the role of the White House in the decision-making process.
The conclusions section of the inspector general’s report, which is expected to be released publicly in the coming weeks, states 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.”
While discussing the project at the hearing, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) asked Murphy: “To your knowledge, was the president or anyone else at the White House involved in those discussions, either with your predecessors, people you’re working with now, or yourself?”
Murphy responded by saying: “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 inspector general’s report is not final and portions of it could be removed or edited based on the agency’s response. The GSA issued a statement saying it was premature to comment publicly on a draft report. Murphy, through the agency’s spokeswoman, stood by her comments to Congress. “Administrator Murphy’s testimony before the House Committee on Appropriations was accurate and truthful,” said press secretary Pamela A. Dixon, in a statement.
It isn’t entirely clear from the April hearing what portion of the FBI’s decision Rep. Quigley is referring to with his question. But by that time, Murphy had discussed the FBI project with President Trump, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and other White House officials, according a person close to the GSA who was familiar with the discussions.
The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were meant to remain private, considered Murphy’s reluctance to explain the White House’s role to be unnecessary.
“The White House is right to be concerned about protecting executive privilege and a meeting between [the president] and multiple agency heads would fall under executive privilege,” the person said. “But there was a way to get out the information that Congress asked while still maintaining the privilege.”
The person said FBI officials had elected to keep the headquarters in D.C. once the previous plan was canceled, saying that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray had personally said to the GSA that, “I don’t want to be remembered as the director that moved us out of D.C.”
Spokesmen for the FBI and GSA Inspector General Carol F. Ochoa declined to comment.
Murphy, who was confirmed in December, has a long history of expertise in government contracting and procurement and previously served as counsel at the House Armed Services Committee.
She is not the only GSA official to come under fire after testifying about the White House’s role in the project before Congress. Daniel Mathews, who has head of the GSA’s Public Buildings Service oversees the FBI project more directly, repeatedly fielded questions from Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Feb. 28.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), whose state stands to lose a shot at landing the FBI headquarters jobs if the bureau remains downtown, asked Mathews at the hearing: “Have you ever had any conversations or communications with the President or any senior White House staff about this FBI project?”
Mathews responded, “No I have not.” But he later clarified his remarks in a letter to Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), writing that he “misheard the question and believed the question was only referring to conversations or communications with the President.”
Mathews wrote that he had attended several meetings with senior White House staff in which the FBI project was either the focus of the meeting or came up in conversation. He said he had not communicated with President Trump about the project.
The inspector general’s report also said the GSA failed to accurately account for the project’s likely costs.
That finding may anger Maryland Democrats who have been feuding with the GSA over its financial analysis of the plan. GSA’s Dixon said the agency stands by its findings, which it released in February, saying that the plan to build a new headquarters in place of the J. Edgar Hoover Building would save taxpayers more than $500 million. Democrats say the analysis omits several important factors.