Officials from the General Services Administration may have misled Congress about the White House’s role in canceling a decade-long search for a new FBI headquarters campus in the Washington suburbs last year, according to a government watchdog report released Monday.
GSA officials also misrepresented the costs of their replacement plan — to build a new downtown headquarters — making it seem as though it would cost less than the original plan when it would actually cost more, the report from the agency’s inspector general found.
Emily Murphy, administrator of the General Services Administration — which manages federal real estate — met with President Trump, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and budget director Mick Mulvaney over the course of two meetings on Jan. 24.
In a congressional hearing discussing the project three months later, 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 GSA says Murphy was referring to where the FBI would be located, not the larger discussions about the project. The agency disputed the findings in the 22-page report, by GSA Inspector General Carol F. Ochoa, standing by the statements of its leaders and its cost calculations. It said in a statement that they are more representative of the “full costs of the project than the analysis put forth in the IG review.”
Murphy hired a private attorney, Jonathan S. Jeffress of Kaiser Dillon, to defend herself. A former GSA inspector general, Brian Miller, hired by the law firm to look into the report, found that Ochoa overlooked the facts in implicating Murphy in her congressional testimony.
“What the administrator did was answer truthfully the question she was asked. It’s not the witness' job to answer follow-ups to questions that the witness wasn’t asked,” Miller said.
Beyond the disagreements, the report offers a look at the internal machinations behind a decision to dump a decade of work toward building a $3-billion-plus secure campus in the Washington suburbs.
Murphy told the investigators that the downtown location was not her agency’s “preferred site and that a lot of work had gone into the campus concept.” Dan Mathews, head of public buildings for the GSA, reiterated that position, telling the FBI that “it would be difficult to obtain congressional support for full upfront funding for the project.”
Nonetheless Wray persisted and — in the GSA’s telling — by the time the two White House meetings took place it had been all but decided that the FBI would remain downtown. On Jan. 24, Murphy first met with Kelly, Mulvaney and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to discuss the mechanics of such a decision.
Immediately afterward she met with Trump in a conversation Murphy described to investigators as “back and forth” with “free-flow discussion."
A GSA attorney prevented agency officials from disclosing any statements made by the president after receiving instruction from White House lawyers, according to the report. But to Murphy the takeaway was clear — the Hoover Building would be demolished to make way for a new headquarters, and some FBI personnel would be relocated out of the Washington area.
“Murphy stated that at the end of the meeting, she understood that they were moving forward with the demolish-rebuild project” at the Hoover site, the report said.
Although Trump has personally taken an interest in promoting the new plan with legislators, it has not received traction yet — in part because Democrats from Virginia and Maryland are so furious at the scuttling of the original plan.
Northern Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), who requested the report, issued a statement Monday calling for an expansive congressional investigation.
“We must develop a comprehensive understanding of the President’s involvement in this procurement and what it has cost the United States in terms of both national security and taxpayer dollars,” he said.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) issued a statement calling the report’s finding “extremely alarming” and saying that the administration needed to disclose the entirety of the president’s involvement before proceeding with the project.