The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Thursday rebuked the site selection process for its new headquarters, while members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia sparred over whether politics unfairly tipped the scales.
FBI Director Christopher Wray wrote in a message to employees that he and others have “concerns about the fairness and transparency in the process,” though he later added those “concerns are not with the decision itself but with the process.”
While working with the General Services Administration, the federal agency tasked with making the decision, Wray wrote the FBI “identified concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving the site selection authority and whether changes that individual made in the final stage of the process adhered to the site selection criteria.”
“Despite our engagement with GSA over the last two months on these issues, our concerns about the process remain unresolved,” Wray wrote.
Wray didn’t identify the person involved, however a trove of documents released by the General Services Administration on Thursday afternoon showed the ultimate decision was made by Nina Albert, the GSA’s former commissioner of public buildings.
Albert, who has since moved on to an appointment as Washington D.C.’s deputy mayor for economic development and planning, previously worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which owns the Greenbelt site.
Maryland Matters called and emailed Albert at her D.C. job for a comment Thursday, but did not receive a response. In 2021, General Services Administrator Robin Carnahan concluded that Albert did not have a conflict in the FBI headquarters site selection process.
A 38-page report detailed how Albert and the GSA ultimately identified the Greenbelt site as the most advantageous. But the newly released documents also included an earlier analysis completed by three-person site selection panel in August that concluded that the Springfield site was best, followed by Greenbelt.
The FBI “will continue to be clear about our process concerns, even as we work with the GSA toward the design and construction of a facility,” Wray wrote.
Marylanders reject criticism of Greenbelt site
Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer said during a brief interview at the U.S. Capitol that the site selection process for the new headquarters was “fair,” rejecting criticism about the choice of Greenbelt.
“To say that somehow this process was skewed is wrong,” Hoyer said, noting that some in FBI leadership don’t want to move out of downtown Washington, D.C. at all. The current headquarters building, a large brutalist structure on Pennsylvania Avenue NW dedicated in 1975, has been in disrepair for years.
“The director wants to be in the District of Columbia. He has made it very clear he wants to be in Washington D.C. He does not want to move. Almost every expert has said that’s not tenable, consistent with the security of the FBI,” Hoyer said. “So, you know, I’m sorry he feels that way. I think he’s absolutely wrong in his representation.”
Hoyer said he hopes the General Services Administration, which announced its pick of Greenbelt over two other locations on Wednesday, doesn’t rethink its decision, though he didn’t rule out the possibility.
“I’ve been here a long time. You think you’ve made a decision and there’s always more to come,” Hoyer said.
How close the new FBI headquarters is to its academy in Quantico, Virginia, wasn’t a significant factor, Hoyer said.
“That was made up and not only was it made up — and I don’t say it’s irrelevant — but the hand of the FBI was put heavily on the scale for proximity to Quantico for the first time in September 2022,” Hoyer said.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said the GSA’s decision was “outrageous” and called on the agency to reverse course, and pick Virginia after all.
“They cooked the books on this thing and they changed the criteria, which they shouldn’t have done,” Kaine said. “But now we know that even under the changed criteria, the GSA and FBI unanimously recommended that Virginia was the site. And then it got overturned.”
“It’s clearly a double politicization of this effort and the administration should reverse it,” Kaine said.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said he doesn’t know what others are referring to when they say GSA’s decision to choose Greenbelt was political.
“I really don’t,” Cardin said. “We knew that the FBI was biased in the process on where they wanted to go. And it’s not their choice, it’s GSA’s choice.”
Cardin said during a brief interview that while he wanted the GSA to choose Maryland, it was also the best choice for the FBI.
“I will admit that I’m not objective. But I think I am pretty analytical, and to me, this was a logical decision for GSA to make,” Cardin said. “Maryland was by far the best for the taxpayers. It was the best for the mission. It was the best location for facilities.”
‘Funny business’ alleged by Warner
Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner expressed frustration with the process, saying during a brief interview that “a three-person panel of GSA and FBI unanimously chose Virginia.”
“And then there was political interference. There’s been funny business in this process all along,” Warner said. “And Virginia is such an obvious choice, both in terms of needs of the FBI, in terms of cost to the taxpayer in terms of, frankly… diversity around the site of Springfield.”
“Unfortunately, it appears this was the kind of funny business that was more typical in the Trump administration,” Warner said.
Ten of the 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) issued a statement Thursday after reports on Wray’s letter that said they were “deeply disturbed to learn that a political appointee at the General Services Administration overruled the unanimous recommendation of a three-person panel comprised of career experts from the GSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation concluding that Springfield, Virginia is the site best suited for the new FBI headquarters.”
“We have repeatedly condemned political interference in the independent, agency-run site selection process for a new FBI headquarters. Any fair weighing of the criteria points to a selection of Virginia,” they wrote. “It is clear that this process has been irrevocably undermined and tainted, and this decision must now be reversed.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said during a brief interview the GSA shouldn’t revisit its decision to select Greenbelt and instead the federal government should move forward with building the new headquarters.
“Look, this has been going on for over 10 years. This was a fair, transparent process. And the decision was made on the merits and we have to move forward,” Van Hollen said. “It’s disgraceful that the men and women of the FBI are still in a headquarters that’s falling apart. So the decision’s made. End of story. We’re moving on.”
Carnahan, the GSA administrator, said in a written statement that the agency is “disappointed that the FBI Director is now making inaccurate claims directed at our agency, our employees, and our site selection plan and process.”
“Any suggestion that there was inappropriate interference is unfounded. The choice of Greenbelt, Maryland, is fully consistent with the decision-making process as well as all laws, regulations, and ethical considerations,” Carnahan said. “We stand behind the process, the decision, and all of the public servants who carefully followed the process and made a good decision on behalf of the FBI and the public.”
In pitching Prince George’s County as the ideal site, Maryland lawmakers have seized on the Biden administration’s focus on advancing equity in federal agencies’ programs.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Steven Horsford, a Nevada Democrat, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement supporting the decision on Thursday: “The new headquarters will benefit local Black-owned small businesses and bring quality public-sector jobs to Black communities throughout Prince George’s County.”
The Quantico factor
FBI leaders have indicated a preference for a site in D.C. or Virginia throughout the selection process.
A report from June included an analysis of 1,700 badge swipes at the bureau’s training site in Quantico, Virginia, in the summer of 2022. The report showed that 544 employees who work at a facility that would be folded into a new consolidated headquarters made 1,754 trips to Quantico over the course of two months.
The report stated that it was important to ensure that trainings at Quantico continue “unimpeded by distance if the FBI is to properly train and develop its people.”
The Springfield, Virginia, site is about 27 miles from Quantico. The estimated distance from Landover is 51 miles, and from Greenbelt is about 54 miles.
Maryland leaders called the data unresponsive to questions they had about the agency’s workforce and said the “imperfect data” showed only 6% of the FBI workforce traveling to Quantico with any regularity.
Maryland elected officials are expected to hold a press conference about the GSA’s announcement in Greenbelt at 9 a.m. Monday.
Virginia Mercury Editor Sarah Vogelsong contributed to this report.
This breaking news story was updated.