Cannon renovation hearing highlights questionable reimbursements

Spending elicited concerned reactions from lawmakers

Brian Abt, CEO of the Mid Atlantic Region of Clark Construction, testifies during the House Administration Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Renovations of the Cannon House Office Building" on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Brian Abt, CEO of the Mid Atlantic Region of Clark Construction, testifies during the House Administration Committee hearing on "Oversight of the Renovations of the Cannon House Office Building" on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 5, 2021 at 5:47pm

The Architect of the Capitol reimbursed Clark Construction Group $234,383 in taxpayer money for legal fees the company spent in preparation for one hearing before the House Administration Committee in 2019.

“So one of your findings was that over $234,000 in legal fees went to prepare for a hearing in front of this committee?” House Administration ranking member Rodney Davis, R-Ill., asked.

Architect of the Capitol Inspector General Christopher P. Failla said the law firm billed Clark, which then asked for reimbursement from the agency. Clark Construction Group and the Christman Company are working together, in a joint venture, on the Cannon House Office Building renovation.

The spending elicited concerned reactions from lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing examining the Cannon renovation project, including the use of taxpayer money on superfluous fees. Brian Abt, chief executive officer for the Mid-Atlantic Region of Clark Construction Group, testified at the House Administration panel's hearing in 2019 to which the legal fees are attributed.

Chairperson Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called the attorney fees “outrageous.”

“We deserve some further explanation for that,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Failla said his office looked at a sample of 60 invoices received by the agency for reimbursements to Clark, 34 of which were not deemed reimbursable by the inspector general. In addition to the legal fees, the inspector general identified $54,246 in unallowable costs and $286,933 for insufficient supporting documentation.

“Some things were for flowers, some were for travel, some were for alcohol, and our biggest find was for reimbursable expenses for the last hearing that they attended, which was around $234,000 for legal fees,” Failla said.

Failla said that his office will conduct at least two audits each fiscal year on the Cannon renewal project and that he plans to examine all the invoices past the 60 they scrutinized.

“Unfortunately, that is quite a common practice of consultants, because there was no allotment in the contract for hearings or preparation for hearings,” said Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton. “So we think the fee is excessive, and so that’s what we’re going after them for. But there is going to be some money that we collect from it, but some that they’re going to retain.”

Although the inspector general’s report from June said, “We are questioning the full $234,383 in outside legal costs,” the IG said it would be looking to recapture only a fraction of that. “After reviewing the legal costs for allowability and reasonableness, the AOC is now pursuing a credit of $35,426 from the CMc,” the report said, referring to Clark.

Blanton told the lawmakers it wasn’t in the initial contract for Clark to testify so they tried to put that off as unforeseen expenses, but he acknowledged the amount was excessive.

Outside of the Cannon project, Blanton is under scrutiny from Failla's office for alleged misuse of a government vehicle.

The renovation for the oldest House office building was over budget and delayed even before the advent of COVID-19 and the Jan. 6 insurrection. It began in 2014 and was originally expected to cost $753 million, stretched over 10 years and five phases (numbered 0-4). That original cost estimate rose to $890 million, an increase of $137 million.

Clark did not respond to a phone call and email request for comment.