Could GSA's Murphy join the race for the exits?
- By Mark Rockwell
- Nov 07, 2018
The decision to renovate FBI's aging headquarters is the source of a brewing controversy that could ensnare the popular GSA chief.
Several cabinet officials are likely to leave government service ahead of the expected flurry of investigations once Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January.
The General Service Administration's chief Emily Murphy could join some other, more high-profile names scurrying for the exits ahead of contentious congressional hearings and subpoenas.
While GSA is largely nonpartisan and fulfills back office functions like acquisition, property management and payroll, the agency's role in the disposition of the current FBI headquarters has been a topic of ongoing interest for Democrats on the House Oversight Committee and other panels.
In the summer of 2017, GSA and the FBI changed their decade-old plan to move to a campus location in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs. For now, FBI is remaining in its aging downtown location, almost directly across Pennsylvania Ave. from President Donald Trump's hotel.
"Administrator Murphy is committed to leading GSA," a GSA spokesperson told FCW. "Under her leadership, the agency delivered $6.1 billion in savings and cost avoidance in Fiscal Year 18. GSA looks forward to providing additional cost-savings and continuing to improve service to federal employees in FY19 under Administrator Murphy’s leadership."
But pressure has been ratcheting up on GSA to explain the decision to scupper the FBI move and to account for communications between GSA and the White House. With Democrats in the majority, Murphy is likely to be in the hot seat.
"It's no secret Congress is interested in her testimony," said one former Capitol Hill official now in the IT industry.
"She's in trouble," a former GSA official told FCW.
In a Nov. 2 letter, ranking members of key House oversight and government operations committees demanded responses from GSA and White House officials about cost savings benefits of keeping the headquarters in downtown D.C. and for all communications between the White House and GSA on the matter going back to the day of Trump's inauguration.
An Oct. 18 letter to Murphy from the same group of lawmakers cited documents that indicated that Trump was "directly involved" with the decision to keep the FBI downtown and said that Murphy, "concealed that information from Congress."
An August 2018 report from GSA's inspector general said that any increased costs from relocating the FBI to a suburban site would have been largely offset by the money from the sale of the D.C. property.
Murphy's testimony before the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee in April had downplayed discussions with the White House about the building.
The imbroglio has also been a lead story on national news programs such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show, giving it an even higher profile among Democrats.
Most industry and former agency officials agreed Murphy will likely leave the agency once the Democrats take control. Some had a glimmer of hope the seasoned and knowledgeable administrator would hold on.
"It could go either way," said one former long-time GSA acquisition official FCW spoke with.
Murphy is an unlikely figure to be drawn into a partisan knife fight. She is seen as an expert on procurement issues, has served on Capitol Hill as a senior staffer and counsel and worked at GSA in a top acquisition post during the George W. Bush administration.
"She knows what [the Federal Acquisition Service] is and does," the former officials said. Coming into the job, Murphy "did not need to take GSA 101."
Because of her deep expertise, all of the sources FCW spoke with agreed that she would be very difficult to replace. She has an intricate understanding of how the agency works and its important job within the federal government -– at a time when GSA is taking a more high-profile role in shared services and IT modernization.
The former Hill staffer said Democrats aren't necessarily taking aim at Murphy. Their ultimate target is the president and people close to him. Taking out a GSA administrator is "relatively easy" politically, but it doesn’t get much political traction, he added. Congressional Democrats, he said, might move on to those more valuable trophies.
If Murphy does exit GSA, possible replacements include FAS Commissioner Alan Thomas and Deputy Administrator Allison Brigati.
This article was updated Nov. 7 to include comment from GSA.
Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.
Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.
Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.
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Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.