A congressional subcommittee hammered the General Services Administration on Monday for allowing Miami’s historic federal courthouse to linger unused for five years. Members even wondered aloud if the scandal-plagued agency should be disbanded.
The hearing at the David W. Dyer Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was held by the House Subcommittee on Economic Develop-ment, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.
A GSA administrator told the panel it’s not so easy to convert the Dyer building into offices for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court or the federal defender’s office, two of the possibilities suggested.
The courthouse with the coquina stone facade shares its electrical grid with the C. Clyde Atkins Courthouse next door, there is the persistent mold problem, and tunnels to transport prisoners connect the building to others in the federal complex.
John Smith, a public service administrator with the GSA, estimated the cost of bringing the building up to speed for tenants, federal or private, would be about $10 million.
The panel was not sympathetic.
“Can we actually abolish the agency and have a private agency pick up the ball and run with it?” subcommittee chair Jeffrey Denham, R-California, asked rhetorically
Taxpayers bear costs
He was joined by U.S. Representative John Mica, R-Florida, chairman of the Transportation Committee, and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida.
Mica said nearly 1,400 federal properties are under-used or vacant, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. He mentioned recent scandals in which the GSA has come under fire for careless spending, including spending $823,000 on training conferences that resulted in the resignation of agency administrator Martha Johnson in April.
The courthouse costs taxpayers $1.2 million annually since it was shut down in 2008, Mica said. The congressman noted the GSA asked developers to submit ideas for the property after the committee announced its hearing.
“If we have a hearing at every empty building in the country in order to get GSA to stop wasting money, we will do so,” he said.
The courthouse, completed in 1933, was closed after the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Courthouse opened a block to the west. A former Dyer occupant, U.S. Magistrate Judge Theodore Klein, died of a fatal lung ailment, and employees complained the building made them sick.
Denham said the GSA has ignored directives from President Barack Obama, painting it as a rogue agency, and said administrators like Smith inexplicably received bonuses.
Smith said the agency estimates it will save $3 billion by the end of 2012 by managing its own real estate and helping other agencies find savings.
But David Wise, director of the physical infrastructure team of the Government Accountability Office, testified the $3 billion could not be verified from documents submitted by the GSA.
Denham said he “took great offense” at Smith’s rosy picture of the agency.
The subcommittee inquired why extra space in the Ferguson building could not be leased or used by other government agencies, like the FBI.
Frank Hull, a judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, testified the courts need to have room to grow, noting the Southern District of Florida is expecting several new judges as current ones go on senior status.
The focus of the hearing, though, was the downtown Miami courthouse. The hearing took place in the cypress-lined ceremonial courtroom with a grand mural behind the bench of Florida life in the 1930s. It was the site of some of Florida’s biggest trials, including mobster Meyer Lansky and deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
Diaz-Balart noted the GSA received $5.9 billion in stimulus money but appeared to squander it on needless projects, bonuses and conferences.
“I’m speechless,” he said. “This is one of the most frustrating and infuriating things.”