GSA chief takes heat on FBI HQ plans

Now that they're in the majority, House Democrats are pressing for answers on why a planned move by the FBI to a suburban campus was derailed.

By faustasyan shutterstock  photo ID: 365684687 FBI HQ J EDGAR HOOVER building
 

House Democrats are pushing for answers on why a long-planned move by the FBI to a suburban campus was scuttled by the Trump administration.

General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy parried questions at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on March 13, defending her agency's handling of the move.

The issue raised by Democrats in past hearings is whether the decision to cancel a plan to move the FBI to a suburban campus and lease the prime downtown site to a developer was done to ward off potential competitors to the Trump International Hotel, which is almost directly across the street from FBI's headquarters.

"Was any influence brought to bear that would have impacted the president's personal interests," asked Rep. Mike Quigley, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Financial Services and General Government subcommittee near the conclusion of a March 13 hearing on the FBI headquarters building.

"None whatsoever," Murphy responded.

In the summer of 2017, GSA and the FBI changed their decade-old plan to move to a campus in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, in favor of demolishing and rebuilding the facility on its current site.

During the almost two-hour-long hearing, Murphy repeatedly told the panel the decision not to move the headquarters location was made by the FBI.

"To my knowledge the president had no part of the FBI's decision," she said.

Murphy submitted a letter dated Feb. 8, 2019, from FBI Deputy Associate Director, Paul Abbate to the panel. Abate said the agency decided to re-evaluate moving to campus sites in neighboring Maryland and Virginia based on concerns over transportation, land acquisition and proximity to other agencies at those sites. The letter also said the FBI believes that working with GSA, security concerns about the downtown location could be "mitigated sufficiently" to build in "Level V" security capabilities common to other buildings such as the Pentagon and CIA headquarters.

Pressed by Quigley during the hearing on security concerns at the downtown location, Murphy said the FBI was better qualified to make the call.

"I don't believe GSA should dictate to the FBI on security concerns," she said.

Democrats repeatedly tried to pin Murphy down whether the FBI building discussions, as well as her testimony, were done with direct White House input. She repeatedly declined to answer those questions, citing "longstanding" privileged communications between agency heads and the White House. She also repeatedly denied the president had input on the decision to switch from the plan to relocate the FBI headquarters building to keeping it in downtown Washington.

She was also asked to clarify her statements in previous hearings on the issue in which she responded unclearly on whether the White House had had input on the decision and whether she had met with White House officials or the president on the building.

Murphy told the panel she met with the president only once -- on Jan. 24, 2018 -- after the decision to keep the headquarters building had already been settled with the FBI.

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