WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher Wray told agency staff he was concerned about “a potential conflict of interest” involving the choice of the bureau’s new headquarters in Maryland, according to an email obtained by NBC News.
On Thursday, the General Services Administration confirmed that the new FBI headquarters would be located in Greenbelt, about 13 miles northeast of Washington, in what appears to be an end to a drawn-out and politically tense site selection process. Two other finalists were Springfield, Virginia, and Landover, Maryland.
In his unusually pointed letter to staff, Wray said the FBI was “concerned about the fairness and transparency of the process and about GSA’s failure to adhere to its own site selection plan,” adding that a top GSA executive had overruled a board decision and chosen land that was owned by the executive’s former employer, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
A three-member panel initially determined that Springfield, Virginia, was the best location. The decision by a policy official overseeing the process to reject the “unanimous” recommendation of career officials, Wray wrote, was not “fundamentally inappropriate,” but it is “extremely rare.”
“In particular, the FBI observed that, at times, outside information was inserted into the process in ways that appeared to disproportionately favor Greenbelt, and that the justifications for panel departures were varied and inconsistent,” Wray said.
Virginia politicians echoed Wray’s concerns about the process and expressed frustration after years of battling with their Maryland counterparts to accommodate the new headquarters. Some have called for an investigation and for the GSA’s decision to be overturned.
“It is clear that this process has been irrevocably compromised and tainted, and this decision must now be reversed,” the commonwealth’s two senators, eight of its House members and Gov. Glenn Youngkin said in a statement.
Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said he plans to request an inspector general investigation, saying, “This process has been rotten. »
“Yes, there should be an IG investigation, and we will ask for one, but I hope the administration realizes that this process is rotten,” Warner told NBC News. “And, you know, the people who work at the FBI deserve better answers; American taxpayers deserve better answers.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told NBC News that he and other Virginia lawmakers were “really disappointed” by the decision and “knew there was a political calculation to change the criteria.”
“This should definitely be reversed,” Kaine added.
Sen. Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said the senators were “simply wrong on this.”
“GSA made the right decision based on the taxpayers, the mission, the availability of the site and the ability of the site to handle the necessary growth,” Cardin said. “It’s the best location for public transportation. I mean, the list goes on and on about why they chose this site.
The Biden administration has defended the process as “fair and transparent.” White House principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton told reporters that Greenbelt was the least expensive location with the best access to public transportation for FBI employees.
GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan also defended the process.
“The GSA and FBI teams have spent countless hours working closely together over many months, so we are disappointed that the FBI Director is now making inaccurate statements against our agency, our employees , as well as our site selection plan and process,” she said in a statement. “Any suggestion that there was inappropriate interference is unfounded.”
Carnahan said GSA tried to “incorporate feedback from the FBI and appropriately address their concerns” throughout the process.
However, Wray said the FBI’s concerns about the process “remain unresolved,” although Congress “will control next steps.”
“There are still a lot of open questions and we still have a long way to go,” he said. “But ultimately, our focus will remain on doing everything we can to ensure that the FBI has a headquarters that best meets the needs of our people, our mission and the American people.”