At a committee hearing, senators from both parties, led by and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), said the decision blindsided them, wasted millions of dollars and put the bureau’s security in jeopardy.
“The men and women of the FBI, who keep us all safe, deserve an office building that meets their needs,” Barrasso said. “The security and efficiency arguments for this are clear. What is not clear is why this project was suddenly halted, why Congress was not notified in advance and what happens now.”
For more than a decade the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been pursuing a new headquarters and in recent years has worked closely with the General Services Administration, which manages federal real estate, on a plan to trade away the J. Edgar Hoover Building to a real estate developer and put up nearly $2 billion in taxpayer funds to cover the remaining cost of building a modern site.
After spending an estimated $20 million on its plan, which would have consolidated the FBI in Greenbelt, Md., Landover, Md., or Springfield, Va., the GSA pulled the plug in July because the project’s uncertainty had driven down the potential value of the Hoover Building among the final bidders. That could have caused costs to escalate down the line.
The decision was made while both agencies were operating under transitional leadership. Since then Christopher A. Wray has been confirmed as the new FBI director. And while the GSA still has an acting administrator, it is scheduled to swear in a new Public Buildings Commissioner, former congressional staffer Dan Mathews, on Thursday. He will oversee federal real estate.
Michael Gelber, an agency veteran serving as acting commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, told the committee that a new FBI campus would probably cost upward of $1.6 billion and that the agency was considering a number of paths forward. After President Obama’s administration sought $1.4 billion for the project, the Trump administration proposed no money for in its 2018 budget proposal. He said it could take five to seven years to open a new headquarters and that the agency had already spent $20 million on the project.
No senator appeared more frustrated by the process than Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the state that would be home to two of the proposed sites. Cardin said the GSA had received seven viable development plans from three developers and pointed out that Congress had granted the agency approval to pick a new headquarters location. Congress has already appropriated more than $800 million toward construction and approved the selling of the Hoover Building.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to move this quicker than saying it’s another four, five or six years to get this done,” Cardin said, “because the FBI can’t wait and the taxpayers demand that we be more efficient than this.”
Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) issued a statement calling the canceled deal “deeply troubling” and saying members of Congress were blindsided by the decision, which first became public in The Washington Post a day before it was announced.
Gelber said that the agency hadn’t selected a site because it didn’t know how the new headquarters would be financed. He said the appropriated funds would remain committed to the project and that GSA was still trying to determine how best to advance the project without securing all the needed funds ahead of time. He committed to formulating a new plan within 120 days.
“This administration is considering a number of new federal tools to support better decision-making while maintaining transparency and fiscal restraint,” he said.
Hanging over the proceedings is a Trump administration policy of not providing information to committees unless requested by Republican leadership, infuriating Democrats and prompting criticism from Republicans.
“This is outrageous. We cannot stand for it,” Carper said. He asked Gelber whether there was any White House involvement in the FBI cancellation; Gelber responded that although his agency had consulted with the Office of Management and Budget he was not aware of discussions with any White House officials.
Richard L. Haley II, the bureau’s head of finance and facilities, called the proposed building swap “risky,” but didn’t blame the GSA for the failed procurement because he shared the agency’s concerns that as the Hoover Building’s value diminished it would have created unknown funding needs down the road.
Meanwhile, the Hoover Building continues to deteriorate and the government pays heightened costs at some 15 other locations around the Washington area to house the bureau’s headquarters. Haley reminded the senators that Hoover was designed largely as a storage facility and was woefully inadequate to meet the modern technological needs of the bureau.
He said a recently busted pipe had served as a reminder of how out-of-date building had become.
“Those issues are still there,” he said.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz