Real Estate Firm With Ties To Trump May Build The New FBI Headquarters Some critics say Vornado Realty Trust should recuse itself from bidding on the project because of its financial relationship to the president and his family.
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Real Estate Firm With Ties To Trump May Build The New FBI Headquarters

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Real Estate Firm With Ties To Trump May Build The New FBI Headquarters

Real Estate Firm With Ties To Trump May Build The New FBI Headquarters

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It would be one of the Washington area's biggest construction projects in years. The FBI is hoping to move out of its aging headquarters and into a safer, more modern campus somewhere in the D.C. suburbs. One of the real estate companies in the running to build it is headed by a man who does business with President Trump. Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The idea behind the project is this - a developer would agree to build the FBI's new campus. In exchange, that developer would get the current site on Pennsylvania Avenue to do whatever it wanted with. Democrat Gerald Connolly is a congressman from Virginia.

GERALD CONNOLLY: We're not just talking about, well, a routine real estate transaction. We're talking about the choicest property to come on the market in Washington, D.C., in a century.

ZARROLI: The FBI referred questions about the project to the General Services Administration, which wouldn't comment. But it's been widely reported that one of the three finalists picked to develop the project is New-York-based Vornado Realty Trust. Vornado's chairman is Steven Roth, a supporter of the president. Roth appeared with Trump during his recent visit to Cincinnati. Trump called Roth one of the greatest builders in America and then tried to coax the publicity-shy billionaire up on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Where are you guys? Come here, come here, come here. Come up here, Steve. These people aren't used to this. You know, they like to build. They don't know about this.

(APPLAUSE)

ZARROLI: Trump has so much respect for Roth he named him to an advisory council on infrastructure. Roth talked about the post during a February conference call with Wall Street analysts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN ROTH: I'm honored to be involved in it. I think I can contribute. I am an adviser. I am not a line - I'm not a line executive. I am not in any way an employee of the government. And so this is something that we do when asked.

ZARROLI: But Roth is more than an adviser to Trump. He's also a business partner. Vornado and Trump are co-owners of office buildings in New York and San Francisco. Roth described their relationship this way during the February call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROTH: I know President Trump. I've known him for a very long time. We have had dealings together. We know each other.

ZARROLI: And Vornado is also an investor in a troubled Manhattan building owned by the family of the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Normally this wouldn't matter. Steven Kelman, a federal procurement official during the Clinton Administration, says big construction projects like this one are overseen by career civil servants.

STEVEN KELMAN: In terms of the way the cut - the procurement system legally functions, the White House is not allowed to be involved in this. The president does not get involved. The White House does not get involved in who should get a contract. Certainly they're not supposed to.

ZARROLI: But Congressman Connolly says this case is different. He says the financial ties between the president and Vornado represent a baked-in conflict of interest.

CONNOLLY: And that puts a cloud over Vornado's otherwise perfectly sensible bid.

ZARROLI: Connolly notes that the current site of the FBI headquarters is right across the street from Trump's Washington hotel, so the president has a big stake in what gets built there. Connolly says the whole thing is just too murky. And it's made even more so because the president won't release his tax returns.

CONNOLLY: And so we have to make some assumptions about potential conflicts. And I can't rule it out since he won't rule it out.

ZARROLI: And so for now, he says, Vornado needs to remove itself from the bidding process. Vornado didn't respond to a request for comment, and the Kushner company declined to comment. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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