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FBI head cites a 'potential conflict of interest' in the selection process for a new headquarters

WASHINGTON (AP) — The contentious debate over a new FBI headquarters intensified further Thursday as the director said he was concerned about a “potential conflict of interest" in the site selection and the White House defended the process as “fair and transparent.” But a senator said there a clear need for a federal investigation.

FBI Director Christopher Wray's unusually sharp criticism came in an internal email to agency employees that was obtained by The Associated Press. It was the latest twist in a vigorous competition among jurisdictions in the national capital region to land America’s premier law enforcement agency.

That General Services Administration selected Greenbelt, Maryland, a Washington suburb, as the home for a new facility to replace the crumbling J. Edgar Hoover Building, which is blocks away from the White House. Wray said his objections were about the process rather than the Greenbelt site itself.

The GSA, which manages the government’s real estate portfolio, said that site about 13 miles (20 kilometers) northeast of Washington was the cheapest one with the best access to public transit. But Wray asserted in his note that the choice came after a GSA executive overruled a board and picked land owned by a former employer.

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, which also vied for the project, urged an investigation. “I had felt that this has been grossly political with efforts to try to change the criteria, but I was astounded when we found out that three career officials unanimously picked Virginia and a political appointee overturned it. Clearly, there needs to be an inspector general investigation," he said.

In a joint statement, Virginia's elected leaders called for the determination to be reversed, asserting that their state's site remains the best choice under “any fair weighing of the criteria.”

But GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan stood behind the agency's work, saying officials followed all laws and ethical considerations. “Any suggestion that there was inappropriate interference is unfounded,” she said.

White House principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton also defended the process. She did not comment on whether did Biden had any direct involvement in the final site decision.

“I can tell you it was a fair and transparent process,” Dalton told reporters on Air Force One as Biden traveled to Illinois on Thursday. “The 61 acres in Greenbelt is both the lowest cost to taxpayers, most transportation options for FBI workers, and we had the most assurances about the expeditious means with which a project could get underway.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wray has previously indicated he would prefer to stay in Washington, but maintained that experts found a suburban location is a better choice for the agency's long-term security. “To say somehow this process was skewed is wrong,” Hoyer said.

Maryland and Virginia had long been vying to land the FBI, and officials in Virginia, which is home to the FBI Academy, criticized the government's decision.

Congress last year directed the administration to consider three sites for the new headquarters: Greenbelt and Landover in Maryland or Springfield, Virginia.

A board that included representatives from the GSA and the FBI unanimously agreed on Springfield, Wray wrote. But a senior GSA executive changed course and went with Greenbelt, the FBI director said.

“The FBI observed that, at times, outside information was inserted into the process in a manner which appeared to disproportionately favor Greenbelt, and the justifications for the departures from the panel were varied and inconsistent,” Wray wrote.

The land in Greenbelt is owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which once employed the senior GSA executive, according to Wray's note.

“Despite our engagement with GSA over the last two months on these issues, our concerns about the process remain unresolved,” Wray wrote. “There are still a lot of open questions, and we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Carnahan said the GSA had listened to the FBI: “At every step, the GSA team has worked to incorporate the FBI’s feedback and appropriately address their concerns, including conducting a legal review of each concern raised."

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Associated Press writers Seung Min Kim and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.