The head of the General Services Administration defended the agency’s site selection process for the new FBI headquarters on Tuesday, as lawmakers critical of the process indicated they would ask the agency’s watchdog to review the matter.
Lawmakers on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability pressed GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan for answers on the agency’s decision to name Greenbelt, Md., as the home of the new FBI headquarters.
The decision was part of a lengthy competition between Maryland and Virginia over where the new facility would be built, but the announcement also comes as conservative Republicans try to kneecap funding for the project over hostility toward FBI leadership.
Carnahan told lawmakers the agency ran a fair and transparent process.
“I am proud of the process that we ran. I stand behind the decision of our team, and of all the public servants who carefully followed that process and selected the site most advantageous to the government,” Carnahan told lawmakers.
The GSA most recently had narrowed down the search to three sites, two in Maryland and one in Virginia, and lawmakers and officials from both states aggressively pushed for the project, with jobs and economic benefits on the line.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said a political appointee at GSA, who has since left the agency, overturned a panel that chose the site in Virginia.
“Because of her — I will say in my opinion arbitrary — overturn of their findings, you ended up picking one side over the other, and that raises serious questions about the process,” Connolly said.
“You really risk damaging the credibility of the agency and its sense of fairness and lack of political interference in decision-making. I think there’s a lot at risk here,” he said.
Connolly said he would be asking for an inspector general report.
Rep. James R. Comer, a Kentucky Republican who is chairman of the oversight panel, said he shared Connolly’s concerns about the way the headquarters site was chosen and expressed support for requesting that the GSA’s Office of Inspector General review the topic.
“The decision implicates hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars and economic impact for the surrounding community,” Comer said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray raised concern with the site selection process, writing in an internal email that the FBI at times saw outside information “inserted into the process in a manner which appeared to disproportionately favor Greenbelt,” according to The Associated Press.
A GSA spokesperson said the agency found Greenbelt to be the best site because it had the greatest transportation access to FBI workers and visitors and it was the lowest cost to taxpayers, along with giving “the government the most certainty on project delivery schedule.”
Carnahan, later in the hearing Tuesday, said that when the GSA makes site selections, the normal process is to have a panel make recommendations, but the agency then has a senior real estate professional make an ultimate decision.
About a decade ago in the same project, a panel selected three sites that were all in Maryland, but the site selection authority decided instead to pick two sites in Maryland and one in Virginia, she added.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., described the site selection as a “very, very, very transparent process” and said the Virginia location was never a part of the original plan for the relocation of the FBI headquarters.
“It has gone through every sort of disclosure and everybody has looked at it, and not everybody is happy with it, but at some point in time we can’t please everybody,” Mfume said.