Keeping the FBI Downtown
June 29, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
“Could you meet Bob downstairs?” said my boss, Jay Brodie. He stood at my office door and holding his hand over the phone after everyone else had left. I nodded and went down the stairs and out to the corner and waited as rush hour traffic streamed from downtown. Bob Embry, formerly our boss and then Deputy Secretary of HUD, often dropped information at our city office building in Baltimore on his way home from Washington. His driver eased the black Lincoln to the curb, and Bob’s face appeared behind the lowering rear window.
“Here’s the president’s speech on urban policy he’ll give to Congress next Thursday. There’s some new grants you guys need to jump on. Tell Jay to look it over and call me,” he said. I nodded and took the sheaf of loose papers, and his window rose.
Upstairs I sat in Jay’s outer office while he was on the phone and skimmed through the president’s speech, double-spaced in large capital letters. After some general comments about the importance of the nation’s cities, President Carter would propose a new $400 million competitive grant program, an urban development bank, new mortgage programs, more flexible block grants by federal agencies, and a long list of proposed legislation. In the spring of 1978, Carter had less than two years left in what would be his only term.
I yawned. The proposals would languish in congressional committees and, if they emerged at all, the programs would be very different. Then I saw the words “I will sign an Executive Order to give first priority to cities for Federal facilities unless it’s inconsistent with its mission.” This was action, not a proposal. I knew this came from Bob Embry’s experience in keeping Federal offices in downtown Baltimore. I made a mental note and tossed the papers in Jay’s in-box.
* * *
In 2003, twenty-five years later, I recalled Carter’s Executive Order when I read in the Birmingham News that the 2121 Building in downtown Birmingham had been purchased by Jefferson County for expansion of county offices. The FBI Office was a tenant and would relocate to another building or maybe a new building.
Retaining the FBI’s workforce, their expenditures, the city’s tax revenues, and the vitality of downtown was important. Setting a precedent with GSA for locating Federal offices in downtown was even more important. This was a key objective of the City and Operation New Birmingham.
The next day Fran Godchaux of my staff and I called Charlene Thornton, the FBI’s Special Agent-in-Charge, the SAC in FBI jargon. I knew her from several long meetings on race relations as a woman with swept back blonde hair going gray, fashionable glasses, and a brisk, no nonsense manner. Fran was in Women’s Network with her.
Charlene said all real estate questions were handled by the General Services Administration and we would probably learn where they were going before she did. She could only refer us to a GSA regional official, Tom Walker. Fran asked her to pass along what she heard on the grapevine.
When Fran and I reached Walker by phone, he asserted that the process of selecting a location would be an impartial process. No politics would be tolerated. The site selection procedures were legally mandated by statute and strictly followed by Federal officials. He sternly advised that any political interference by the mayor might work against our chances of retaining the FBI offices in the city. I meekly assured him that I was sure the mayor would respect the GSA process, but said the mayor expected information about the process from us.
He reluctantly listed the steps that began with a needs assessment and proceeded to an open bidding process. The site selected would be the most suitable one, not the least expensive. The site decision would be made by the GSA in conjunction with their client, the FBI real estate specialists in Washington. I offered to arrange a briefing for the mayor. He said he would be in touch at the appropriate time.
A few days later, Fran came into my office after a Women’s Network meeting and said Charlene told her a new FBI building was likely for security reasons, but insisted that real estate decisions were above her pay grade. We should stay in touch with Tom Walker. Fran paused, raised her index finger, “One more thing, “Charlene is packing! I saw a big, black gun when she fished in her purse for her car keys. Keep that in mind.”
I called Dave Thompson, the head of economic development in Arlington County, Virginia. He had spoken at a conference about his efforts to bring Federal offices across the Potomac. I asked if selection of a site for our FBI office would be non-political. He responded with a snort and and said, “Bullshit! It’s totally political—100% political.” He asked who made up our congressional delegation. I began with Senators Shelby and Sessions, and he interrupted, “Dynamite! Sessions is a Republican on the Judiciary Committee. That’s where the FBI’s budget comes from. Do you know him?”
“I have met him once or twice, but I’m sure I can get to know him better,” I replied. I mentioned that downtown was in our Democratic Congressman Earl Hilliard’s district. Spencer Bachus, who represented our suburbs, was a Republican. Mayor Kincaid, of course, was a Democrat.
“Sessions is your guy. Keep those other guys informed, but lobby the hell out of Sessions. The FBI will listen to him, and you can bet he would love to cut a ribbon on a new building he can say he brought to Alabama,” said Dave.
“Sounds like great advice. Isn’t there a regulation that Federal agencies have to locate downtown?”
“An Executive Order that Jimmy Carter issued. Reagan and the first Bush ignored it. Clinton’s people wanted to put agencies in downtowns anyway. Now that George W. is in the White House, it will probably be ignored again,” he said.
“Can they ignore an Executive Order?” I asked. “Just because a Democrat issued it?”
“GSA says they are the realtors for the agencies, and they need to listen to their clients and meet their needs. Any agency can get a waiver if their bureaucrats say the downtown sites are inconsistent with their mission,” Tommy said.
Mayor Kincaid was a retired UAB administrator, a political novice, and a Democrat. I was almost sure he had never met Senator Sessions. His office had two speeds: slow and stop. He and his staff were also afflicted with paralysis by analysis. Our contract with the Mayor’s Office called for “close coordination” on for economic development projects, but I decided to gather information on my own—after all we were more or less an extension of the mayor’s staff. I placed a call to Senator Sessions’ office in Washington.
I said I was calling on behalf of Mayor Kincaid in Birmingham and summarized my concern to the receptionist. She connected me to Alan Hansen who assured me that the senator was eager to be supportive of the mayor. He promised to make some calls and get back to me.
I also called Tom Walker and pressed for GSA’s schedule and a status report. I said I had to report to the mayor. He responded that it was early in the process and the mayor would be informed through official channels at the proper time. I said the mayor asked me for this information and my only other choice was to go through our congressional delegation.
“That would be a big mistake. If that happens, the agency’s Congressional Relations Office gets involved and everything stops until they smooth everyone’s ruffled feathers. Delays for months, sometimes years,” said Tom testily.
“What can I tell the mayor? Help me out here, Tom,” I pleaded.
“Tell him we’re in an early phase of the site selection process and we’ll review the potential sites with him after narrowing them down to acceptable proposals,” said Tom in a reassuring voice.
“OK, when will that be?”
“Responses to the Request For Proposals are due at the end of this month. The mayor will have them as soon as we complete our review,” said Tom.
“So you’ve already issued an RFP. Can you send it to us? Is it limited to downtown Birmingham? There’s a Presidential Executive Order that says Federal facilities should be located in downtowns,” I said, doubtlessly tinged with irritation.
“Ok, I’ll fax it to you right away. The FBI requested sites anywhere in the City limits including the Oxmoor Valley. The FBI is our client and we need to respond to their direction. The FBI can get a waiver on that old Executive Order. It’s forty years old and basically obsolete,” said Tom.
I sat down in the chair next to Fran’s desk and told her what I learned from Walker. I asked if she could chat with Charlene and try to find out what’s going on with the site for her new building. “Sure. I don’t mind asking her after our Women’s Network meeting next Monday. If she doesn’t want to tell me, I won’t press her.”
“Sound her out on Oxmoor Valley. Tom mentioned that area,” I said as I stood to return to my office.
“I’ll do that. She lives near Oxmoor. She hosted one of our meetings at her home over the holidays,” said Fran.
As the end of the month approached, we had our regular meeting with the mayor and key department heads. I included a brief report on the new FBI Building and mentioned that we were gathering information on the project.
After her next Women’s Network luncheon Fran came into my office with a sly smile and said, “Charlene said she hoped her commute would be a lot shorter when I mentioned a new FBI building. When I asked if it would be in Oxmoor, she clammed up. I suspect she suddenly remembered where I work.”
I placed another call to Alan in Senator Sessions’ office. He said he was traveling in the state with the senator and had not been able to learn anything. I told him the mayor would be disappointed; he was eager to hear about this project. I asked if the senator could file an official inquiry with GSA. That would please the mayor. He promptly agreed.
In response to another phone call after the first of the month, Tom Walker faxed us the list of the sites submitted. An Oxmoor site, three in downtown, and several others were on the list. One downtown site was adjacent to railroad tracks, a fatal flaw in GSA’s eyes because of security. Fran and I entertained each other by describing an evil villain pumping a hand car to the site like a cartoon character.
Another downtown site was across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, but the sales price was the highest on the list. The other downtown site was west of the Convention Center and across 11th Avenue from Oak Hill Cemetery.
When I relayed this information to Alan, he mentioned that the senator’s daughter worked in a small law office near the Convention Center. He assured me that the inquiry signed by the senator had been submitted and offered to send me a copy to share with the mayor.
In a couple of weeks, Tom called to say that the downtown sites had been ruled out. The Kelly Ingram site for excessive cost, and the railroad site was a non-starter. He said the FBI determined the Convention Center site was insufficiently secure for FBI operations. In response to my protests, he quoted from the FBI’s comments: “proximate to a high crime neighborhood, vulnerable to observation from criminals from the cemetery and high elevations within the neighborhood, FBI officials could be targeted by criminals on higher ground, etc.”
“Aren’t these FBI agents ‘crime fighters’ — G-men, armed and capable of outshooting the bad guys? Eliot Ness and the guys who took on the Mafia and won?” I complained loudly into the phone. “Let me guess, they want the Oxmoor site?”
“I’m just telling you what my client is saying about the downtown sites,” said Tom. I understand Sessions has taken an interest in this project. Maybe the senator should meet with the local Special Agent in Charge. Just a thought.”
“Thanks, Tom. I like working with you.”
I vented to Fran for a few minutes, calmed myself, and called Alan. I related that the FBI said the Convention Center site was near a “high crime area and too dangerous” for them and they want a site in Oxmoor near the home of the SAC. I reminded him of the Presidential Executive Order and asked if the senator would meet with the mayor and the SAC about this.
“I think he would welcome an opportunity to support the mayor. He’s pissed at the FBI for complaining publicly that he’s not supporting them on their budget. He’ll be in the state next week during the Senate’s spring recess. Set up a meeting. ” said Alan.
On the afternoon of the meeting at the GSA Office, Charlene greeted Fran and me graciously as we took our seats in a beige conference room. Tom introduced two men from the FBI’s Washington Office. Their business cards identified them as FBI Office of Congressional Relations Specialists. Alan and Senator Sessions entered just before the mayor arrived.
Following his welcome, Tom asked Charlene to explain why the Convention Center site was unacceptable. I knew she would’t say she wanted a short commute and a office park setting. She spoke of problems of transferring prisoners within view of a high crime neighborhood on the hill, witnesses could be identified by gangs watching from the cemetery. Finally Charlene said, “My agents and I could be assassinated by thugs hiding behind tombstones.”
“Wait just a minute, young lady,” said Senator Sessions, raising his voice, “You have an inflated opinion of your importance. I’m a much bigger target than you and your agents, and you’re armed.” He leaned forward and shook his finger at Charlene. “This site is not dangerous. Do you think I would allow my daughter to work in this area if it were dangerous? I support the mayor in promoting this location for a new FBI building.”
Charlene began to respond “But you don’t understand…” One of the men from Washington interrupted her and assured the senator and the mayor that no final decisions had been made and the bureau appreciated their input.
Charlene stared ahead blankly as the men from Washington concluded the meeting with promises of further consultation. The gun in Charlene’s purse flashed through my mind, but she remained motionless. I exhaled. Tom winked at me.
Afterwards Fran, Tom and I retired to the bar at the Sheraton for a drink. Fran said, “Poor Charlene! Sessions was brutal, wagging his finger at her, but he’s a senator and can get away with beating up on bureaucrats, even one who’s armed.” Tom said he had not seen anything quite like it in all his years at GSA. She’s going to have to keep commuting to downtown, I added. The Convention Center site for the new FBI Building was approved a week later and Charlene was given a lateral transfer to a post in a western state.
The new building in Birmingham was dedicated by Director Robert Mueller in 2005. Fran and I worked closely with Tom on new buildings for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency near the new FBI building. We dubbed the area a “Government Office Park” in an amendment to the Downtown Master Plan. Other Federal agencies relocated downtown when their leases expired.
President Carter’s 1978 Executive Order, drafted by my former boss, Bob Embry, was once again taken seriously by GSA. A win for our downtown and cites across the country.