USEU Gordon Sondland’s Home Renovation in Brussels: Much Higher Than First Reported

 

WaPo and Vanity Fair both reported about the renovation at the Chief of Mission Residence in Brussels, the official residence of the US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Excerpt via Vanity Fair:

A sampling of State Department contracts reveals that since September 2018—just a few months after Sondland’s Senate confirmation—the embassy in Brussels has been awarded $95,109 for a pergola, $13,301 for a pool-Jacuzzi heating system, $33,625 on wooden household furniture, $208,683 on a professional kitchen remodel, and two bathroom renovations, one costing $53,809 and the other $82,354. Additionally, the State Department spent $103,748 on a hotel, to ostensibly serve as an alternate residence to the embassy while the building undergoes renovations for months of September and October of this year. (In a statement, a spokesperson for the State Department confirmed that updates to the residence had been funded in 2019 “as part of its regular 17-year cycle of reviewing and refreshing furnishings and interior décor in representational residences.”)

WaPo’s reporting estimates the renovations at nearly $1 million including a $209,000 professional kitchen, and a $223,000 family kitchen. The actual obligation may  actually be higher than first reported.
A sourced familiar with the matter told us that the Chief of Mission Residence (CMR) was built in 1990 so one’s guesstimate is that the residence is  due for renovation as one of those “representational spaces.” The first contracts were awarded in September 2018, just two months after Sondland got to Brussels. (Sondland was confirmed via voice vote on June 28, 2018). Folks who understand how funding in government works can see that this “wasn’t all his initiative.” But .. because there’s always a but,  we understand from our source that the great bulk of the project items were added “more recently.” The Bureau of Overseas Building Operations  (OBO) reportedly approved all of it and the Office of Acquisition Management (State/AQM) awarded the contracts.
So a fairly modest renovation project was amped up until the contract award to an 8A firm reached $2.5 million?  More? Our source also told us, “Whether that much renovation was needed, or exactly how lavish is too lavish for a representational residence, I can’t say.”
Definitive Contract 19AQMM19C0088 is a Fixed Price Federal Contract Award. It was awarded to Pono Aina Management LLC of Oklahoma on Jun 12, 2019. The definitive contract is funded by the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (DOS). The potential value of the award is $2,504,000 with potential end date of June 11, 2020. The solicitation procedure is marked “simplified acquisition” and  the set-aside type is marked “8(A) Sole Source.”

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Amb Nikki Haley’s Manhattan Curtains Make a News Splash But Wait …

 

So Nikki Haley’s New York curtains made the news.  According to the NYT, the State Department spent $52,701 for curtains in UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s Manhattan apartment.

According to the report, the USG leased the property located at Norman Foster’s 50 UN Plaza Penthouse after the State Department ditched the Waldorf Astoria as the USUN ambassador’s residence in 2016. This happened following the purchased of the Waldorf hotel by a Chinese insurance company with a murky ownership structure.There is reportedly an option to buy this property.  Ambassador Haley is the first ambassador to live in it.

Given the news about various questionable and outrageous expenses across agencies in D.C., and particularly with the funding issues with the State Department when the curtain purchase was expended in 2017, we could be tempted to lump this together with all the swampy behavior in the news.  To be sure, these curtains cost almost as much as the median household income in 2017, and the curtains don’t have to do anything but look clean and nice, and keep prying eyes away. However, we should note that the previous USUN ambassador’s residence at the Waldorf had been previously occupied by other ambassadors and would have been already furnished. This was not a case of she did not like the curtains, and asked that they be replaced. This chief of mission residence (CMR) is a new 5,893 ft² rental, and unless rented furnished, probably required new furnishing, and, of course, new curtains … in a city where the cost of living is 138.6% above U.S. average.

One source familiar with State Department real estate told us that this would be considered part of the “make ready” improvements when the Department takes possession of a property. In some places overseas, it could include not just curtains but also American size washers/dryers. In Africa, it could include generators. We’ve heard of a $40K drapes at some unidentified post. Can you imagine what it would cost to replace the drapes at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in London or Paris?  Of course, non-career folks always have the option to spend their own money whether on CMR curtains or in 4th of July parties but that’s another story.

One former fed told us that given the hiring freeze and the drastic cuts in State funding, that this shouldn’t have gone through. We understand that perspective but remember that Foggy Bottom was Crazytown Also in 2017 with almost all bureaus vacant at the top.  Which acting official should have cancelled this purchase, only to rewrite the purchase order for the necessary expense months later? The NYT report cites Patrick Kennedy, the former Under Secretary for Management at State who defended the purpose of this purchase for entertainment and security. Would Diplomatic Security have allowed occupancy without curtains? Which country or countries might have potential spies/prying eyes directed at this 40th floor penthouse?

Perhaps, it should also be noted that an ambassador’s residence is used not just as living quarters for the chief of mission and his/her family, it is also used as a venue for diplomatic representations, receptions and events.  In many ways, the official chief of mission residences are similar to US embassies abroad; they are representations of the United States. We’d suggest that this expenditure would have been made even if the appointee were a career diplomat.

But there’s some good news! These curtains will likely stay there throughout Haley’s tenure and the next ambassador’s tenure. Unless Scott Pruitt gets appointed to USUN, in which case, we should probably prepare ourselves for mechanized bulletproof curtains in the first 100 days!

Below is the  description of the property via Street Easy (see link for photos).

A rare opportunity is available to rent this full floor condominium on the 40th floor facing all four directions.If you are looking for the best, this is the highest and largest penthouse available for rent in this unique midtown United Nations location. A tad shy of 6,000 sq feet! With views of the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, this coveted condominium across the street from the UN has floor to ceiling glass walls with bay windows throughout and a living/dining room overlooking the beautiful East River. Enjoy the boats and yachts passing by going downtown as well as magnificent skyline views at night. Conveniently located all on one level, this home features corner living and dining rooms as well and two corner master bedrooms. The 11’3″ ceiling height allows for beautiful sunsets and sunrises every day. There are five bedrooms, all with en suite baths with high quality natural stones, some with windows and separate showers stalls and bidets. The interior finishes throughout include custom hardware, and solid white oak floors. The large eat-in-kitchen is outfitted with Varenna white lacquer cabinetry and high end appliances. There are two maids bedrooms in addition and 6.5 baths in total. This masterpiece is designed by the world renowned Architect, Sr. Norman Foster. Cleverly combining Glass with steel to allow natural light into every home, this building boasts elegance from the motor-court lobby with 16′ soaring ceilings and water fall and fireplace, to the wellness center with a 75 foot swimming pool and state-of-the-art fitness facility. A beautiful building that has it all! In addition, this full service property with resident manager, concierge, and valet service also has a conference room, steam, sauna, treatment room, play room, cold storage and bike storage. This penthouse includes valet parking at no additional cost!

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