SEABROOK – Concerns about President Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest have expanded to include the FBI headquarters consolidation project.
Last week, various media outlets reported that Vornado Realty Trust is one of the finalists for the $1.6 billion FBI headquarters project, which could come to Prince George’s County if one of the county’s two short-list sites are selected by the General Services Administration (GSA). Steven Roth, who was tapped by Trump in January to co-chair a council on national infrastructure improvements, is a principal with Vornado, leading some to question the fairness of the bidding process.
Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D) has called on Vornado to drop out of contention for the FBI project because of these conflicts. He said Trump’s failure to divest himself from his company puts the ethical burden on his business partners.
“We’re in a position where, once again, he shrugged off his responsibilities and sloughed it off to someone else,” Connolly told the Associated Press.
Maryland Congressman Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5) said no decisions on the project’s location or developer have been made yet, but that they must be done in a transparent way.
“While a decision on the site selection and chosen developers for the consolidated FBI headquarters has not yet been made, I continue to urge all involved parties to keep the selection process transparent and fair,” Hoyer said.
A spokeswoman for the GSA said the agency does not comment on projects in “active procurement.”
In addition to Roth’s role as an advisor to the president, he and Trump co-own two skyscrapers, one in New York and one in Sam Francisco. Vornado Realty Trust bought the towers from a group of Hong Kong investors who jointly owned the buildings with Trump, Forbes reports. Vornado got a 70 percent stake and Trump retained 30 percent.
Trump also called Roth one of “the great builders of our country” and mentioned him and his company by name at a June 7 speech in Cincinnati.
“I've brought a couple of the greatest builders in America: Steve Roth of Vornado...” Trump said, inviting Roth on stage with him. “These are great builders, and we’re watching and they’re looking over our shoulders.”
Vornado also invested in a skyscraper owned by a company of Jared Kushner’s, Trump’s son-in-law and another advisor to the president.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment about the president’s potential conflicts, but did speak on Kushner’s, saying in a statement, “Jared takes the ethics rules very seriously and would never compromise himself or the administration.”
Garth Beall, the developer for the Greenbelt FBI site, said this is not the first time politicians’ ties have threatened to overshadow the selection process for the new headquarters.
“I was concerned during the election with Tim Kaine being the vice presidential nominee and people suggesting he might try to push the site to Virginia,” he said.
As far as Trump’s ties to Roth and Vornado go, Beall said, “To the extent that it actually constitutes a legal conflict, I’m not sure. If it is, the next discussion is how to mitigate that.”
Beall said his understanding was that all of the finalists had placed bids on his Greenbelt site, which is located next to the Metro station. So, he says his perspective is informed partially by the fact that he is not competing against Vornado.
“Technically, I’m not competing. I control one of the sites,” he said. “To me, it’s almost like it doesn’t make a difference who is chosen as long as they win on the Greenbelt site.”
Additionally, the president is not usually personally involved in making these types of procurement decisions, Beall added, although he said it “would not surprise me” if Trump broke that mold.
He is also concerned by how hands-off the president has been regarding this project, which Beall said is crucial for national security.
“As far as I’m aware, (Trump) has not made a public reference to it, which I guess does concern me because progress on the building has stalled,” he said.
GSA has put on hold any announcement on the developer or site for the consolidated FBI headquarters until full funding is provided, they said. However, Beall said about $900 million has already been set aside for the project, in addition to the price of the J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, D.C., which the winning developer would gain possession of to redevelop.
The turmoil in the executive branch is contributing to the delay now, he believes.
“With the firing of the FBI director and with not having a GSA administrator, I think they are just waiting for things to calm down,” he said.
Hoyer said he is still committed to making sure the project moves ahead.
“The relocation of the FBI headquarters is an issue of national security, and I hope the selection process will continue without delay,” he said. “I remain confident that Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland remains the best location for the consolidated headquarters.”