When members of Congress question Trump administration officials at a Wednesday hearing on maximizing taxpayer dollars and reducing waste in federal real estate, they will have a prime example of how it can all go wrong.
The headquarters of the United States’ premier crime-fighting institution, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is falling apart, but the government has repeatedly failed to build a replacement.
More than a decade after FBI officials began pushing for a home to replace the J. Edgar Hoover Building, and six years after a government report identified long-standing security concerns with the property, the General Services Administration has canceled its search for a new headquarters.
The FBI is not the only loser in this outcome. It’s joined by state officials, county officials, real estate developers, architects and engineers, and of course, taxpayers.
The decision drew wide condemnation from officials in Maryland and Virginia who have spent years pushing for the bureau to move its 11,000 headquarters employees to one of three final locations: Greenbelt, Md., Landover, Md., or Springfield, Va.
“I’ve never seen a decision handled with more mismanagement and more negligence,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) called it “very disappointing.”
“I’m frustrated with our leaders in Congress, and I’m frustrated with the administration’s position, but it’s not surprising,” he said. “It seems like just typical Washington.”
Real estate developers who devoted more than two years to their proposals and spent millions of dollars designing and planning a new campus threw up their hands. One official estimated that $50 million had been spent by local companies and jurisdictions on the now-dashed project.
Garth Beall, manager of Renard Development, said that he had been working on the project since 2010 and that his investment group had spent $8 million on its plans for a 2.1 million-square-foot, highly secure campus in Greenbelt to meet FBI requirements.
“It’s symptomatic of the problems facing Washington today,” Beall said. “That something as obvious as this, they are having difficulty getting done, it’s concerning. The status quo is costing them hundreds of millions of dollars and legitimately jeopardizing the safety of the American people.”
GSA officials said Tuesday that an $882 million funding gap remained, despite Congress appropriating $523 million for the project in 2017. Acting administrator Timothy Horne is scheduled to testify before a House subcommittee Wednesday about “Maximizing Taxpayer Returns and Reducing Waste in Real Estate.”
“Moving forward without full funding puts the government at risk for cost escalations and the potential reduction in value of the J. Edgar Hoover property that developers were to receive as part of this procurement,” the GSA said.
But Maryland Democratic lawmakers were not buying the Trump administration’s argument that funding had derailed the entire project. They said they allocated plenty of money and called on the agencies to submit a new relocation plan to Congress.
“The reasons [given] for the cancellation just aren’t true,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Other elected officials pointed to Trump’s combative relationship with the FBI over the Russia investigation and his potential conflicts of interest with the GSA, which is the landlord for his D.C. hotel.
“I think it’s a violent collision of a lot of things, a bureaucratic nightmare. You have a president with conflicts of interest and at war with the FBI, and neither the FBI nor GSA has agency heads,” said Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), a leading advocate of the Springfield site.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he believes the cancellation was a result of Trump’s conflicts of interest. “I think if you gave truth serum, [decision-makers at GSA and FBI] would admit the ethical cloud was of real concern to them.”
The GSA said: “Moving forward without funding would be a disservice to the American taxpayer. Assertions to the contrary are not based on accurate information.”
The burden on the FBI was immediate and obvious, as its headquarters staff continues to work in the Hoover Building and a dozen other expensive leased locations around the Washington area.
The Hoover complex, completed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford, lacks required security setbacks from Pennsylvania Avenue. Netting hangs on the Ninth Street NW facade to prevent broken concrete from hitting passersby 160 feet down on the sidewalk below.
Staff on the 10th floor sit in a space designed to house 35 million fingerprint cards, which were relocated to West Virginia in 1995.
“They’ve had to re-purpose a lot of the functions since it was first built. No one imagined it would have the electrical needs and security needs there are today,” said Nancy Savage, a 34-year FBI veteran who retired in 2011 and now heads the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
Savage said she believes the bureau is working toward another plan that would relocate parts of the agency to less-expensive areas in the Washington suburbs and beyond, and keep a smaller headquarters closer to downtown.
In the bureau’s first public statement since the cancellation, Assistant Director Richard L. Haley II said it planned to work with the administration and the GSA on “an expeditious path forward.”
“The need for a new FBI Headquarters facility that meets the FBI mission needs, consolidates personnel dispersed across the National Capitol Region, and addresses security requirements has not diminished,” he said.
The politician perhaps most disappointed by the cancellation is Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). “This would have been a really great story,” Baker said.
District officials were of two minds. They are eager for the blocky Hoover site to be redeveloped, now a far-off prospect.
But they are now considering how to keep the bureau in the city.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he would be writing the Trump administration in an effort to keep the FBI from moving out of town and instead relocating to a site in Southeast Washington, such as Poplar Point.
“This isn’t about Maryland and Virginia any more. They had their chance, and they blew it,” he said. “I applaud the president for pulling the plug on this idiotic project.”
Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.