Members of a U.S. House committee on Tuesday grilled the head of the General Services Administration over the agency’s recent decision to place the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s new headquarters in Maryland instead of Virginia.
“The process — or lack thereof — raises many questions that need to be answered,” the chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, James Comer of Kentucky, said in his opening remarks.
Maryland and Virginia members of the committee also battled over the decision at the hearing. Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said he wants the committee to push for an inspector general’s report on the process and Comer agreed to do so.
GSA last week picked the Greenbelt site over the Springfield, Virginia, and Landover options for the FBI, which gained praise from Maryland lawmakers but ire from Virginia lawmakers who criticized the move as political and scrutinized the decision.
Robin Carnahan, the administrator of GSA, said she was confident in the process that the agency underwent in making its decision to relocate the new FBI headquarters from its current location on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown D.C.
“I am proud of the work that our team did,” she said. “This was inevitable that someone was going to be disappointed, between two states that were working very hard to land this facility.”
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8th), defended the new site location, and pointed out that a site in Virginia wasn’t even considered until 2014.
“The Greenbelt site that was chosen by the site selection authority has the lowest overall cost to taxpayers,” Raskin said.
The Maryland and Virginia delegations pitched their states to the GSA in March, which was required in a provision in a government spending package. In 2005, the FBI’s Asset Management Plan indicated the agency would soon need a new headquarters because of the building’s structural and space issues.
GOP Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana asked Carnahan about a letter that FBI Director Christopher Wray sent to GSA, in which he rebuked the new location. 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.”
Wray didn’t identify the person involved, but a trove of documents released by the GSA showed the ultimate decision was made by Nina Albert, the GSA’s former commissioner of public buildings.
Albert, who left GSA in October, previously worked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which owns the Greenbelt site.
Carnahan said she referred the letter to GSA’s legal counsel to review the process and she said there was no merit found to “the suggestion that there was a conflict, or potential conflict (of interest).”
Connolly, however, said Albert “parachuted” into the agency and “she unilaterally overturned and redirected the evaluation of these new weighted criteria.”
Connolly questioned why the GSA changed its five criteria in picking a new location in July. The GSA criteria included FBI mission requirements, access to transportation, site development flexibility, sustainability and equity and cost.
Proximity to the FBI mission-related locations moved from 35% to 25%, transportation access moved from 25% to 20%, site development flexibility stayed at 15%, sustainability and equity increased from 15% to 20% and cost increased from 10% to 20%.
Carnahan pushed back on the notion that Albert “overturned” the decision.
“You ended up picking one side over the other, and that raises serious questions about the process,” Connolly said.
Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan also questioned how long Albert was in the position.
Carnahan said that Albert came to work at GSA in 2021.
Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-4th) asked Carnahan if she believed there was a conflict of interest because Albert previously worked for Metro.
“What I have said from the beginning, what was most important to me, is that we have a fair and transparent process when making this decision,” she said.
Downsizing the government footprint
On the broader subject of government property, several Republicans pressed Carnahan on how GSA would downsize office space due to federal employees who are doing telework.
GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina asked Carnahan how much the agency is spending to maintain office buildings.
Carnahan said that half of the agency’s portfolio is made up of leases and the other half is owned. She added that 23 buildings are in the process of being put up for sale, which would mean a reduction of 3.5 million square feet of office space.
GOP Rep. Jake LaTurner of Kansas pressed Carnahan about the number of employees that are fully remote versus in the office every day.
“My position is that when you have backlogs or acquisitions to get information from the government, we’re paying for office space for these folks to show up to work every day, they ought to be showing up to do their job,” LaTurner said.
She said that 40% of their workforce is remote because those jobs are typically tech.
“We can get more talent if we can have (remote jobs) spread out all over the country,” Carnahan said.
There was a small outburst during the hearing between Comer and Florida Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz.
Moskowitz criticized Comer for his impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and his family’s business dealings overseas. Moskowitz said those hearings have yet to find evidence and slammed Comer for his own business dealings with his brother.
Comer said that when their father died, his brother could not afford to buy the family farm, so Comer bought the land for him.
The conversation became heated, with Comer saying the allegations were “bulls- – – -” multiple times, and then drew attention to Moskowitz’s outfit – a blue suit.
“You look like a Smurf here just goin’ around with all this stuff,” Comer said.
Eventually, Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-7th) quelled the heated exchange and the hearing continued.