Despite Growing Urgency, Long-Stalled FBI Headquarters Project Remains In Limbo
Last month, an eight-pound piece of concrete fell from the ceiling of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, damaging a light fixture and an FBI employee's desk that he was lucky to not be occupying at the time.
“If he had been sitting there, he would have been seriously injured if not killed,” General Services Administration Administrator Emily Murphy told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday, emphasizing the urgency of moving forward with a plan to replace the 51-year-old Pennsylvania Avenue building that has served as the FBI's headquarters since it opened.
Despite the urgency, the project continues to sit in limbo more than a decade after its inception. A majority of the 100-minute-long GSA Oversight Hearing was spent discussing the FBI headquarters project, largely focusing on the reversal of a plan to build a new suburban campus and instead demolish and rebuild the headquarters on the Hoover Building site, decisions made more than one year ago.
Democrats on the panel, the House Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, raised questions over President Donald Trump’s involvement in the reversal and potential conflicts of interest related to his company’s hotel one block away. The questions centered around an August report from the GSA's Inspector General, revealing a January 2018 meeting Murphy held with Trump and concluding she may have misled Congress about his involvement in previous testimony.
"The reversal caused many to question, and rightfully so, whether the president wanted to protect his financial interest in the Trump Hotel, particularly if another developer could obtain the property and compete directly with the Trump Hotel," said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Indiana), the subcommittee chairman.
Murphy said the FBI made the decision to pursue the new plan as a result of the bureau changing its requirements for the headquarters. She said the FBI decided it only needed 8,300 headquarters employees in the D.C. area, rather than the originally planned 10,600, and it would move the remaining employees to offices around the country.
"The FBI's decision, independent of the GSA, to relocate 2,300 employees changed the calculus and put the site on Pennsylvania Avenue back into play," Murphy said.
The government then had to hammer out the specifics of how to keep the FBI in the same location, including whether to renovate the existing building or demolish and rebuild it, and how to finance the project. It ultimately decided to raze and rebuild the headquarters on the Pennsylvania Avenue site, and to pay for it through a ground-lease transaction.
Murphy said those technical decisions were made in meetings with Trump and other White House officials, but she said the president was not involved in the initial decision to scrap the search for a suburban site and pursue the Pennsylvania Avenue plan. Along with the hearing, the GSA released a Feb. 8 letter from the FBI outlining its decision.
“After careful consideration, the FBI decided that demolishing and rebuilding the Pennsylvania Avenue facility best balanced the equities at stake for the organization,” FBI Associate Deputy Director Paul Abbate wrote in the letter. “While a suburban campus would have offered certain advantages, maintaining the FBI’s current location addressed several equally significant concerns, including proximity to FBI partners, transportation concerns and reduced land acquisition and parking costs.”
While much of Wednesday's hearing focused on the 2017 and 2018 decisions, there was little discussion of how to expedite the long-stalled project to put FBI employees in a new facility without the risk of falling concrete.
Congress still needs to provide funding for the GSA and FBI's plan before it can move forward. Trump did not include that funding request in his administration's latest budget proposal, released Monday. A GSA spokesperson said the agency is still working with the FBI to finalize the prospectus for its plan before it makes the formal funding request.
"GSA is fully committed to providing a modern headquarters facility that meets the unique national security and law enforcement requirements established by the FBI," the spokesperson said in a statement. "GSA looks forward to continuing its work with the leadership team at the FBI, and partners in Congress, to provide a secure headquarters facility where the FBI can perform its critical law enforcement and national security work."