Lawmakers question lease for Census tied to mosque
By Carol Morello and Ed O'Keefe
Updated 10:56 a.m. ET
Two Republican lawmakers are raising questions about the decision to lease office space for the U.S. Census Bureau in a building owned by a Falls Church mosque.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Darrell Issa of California each sent letters this week to the General Services Administration asking for details about a two-year lease for an office on the second floor of a building on Edsall Road in Alexandria. The building is owned by the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, one of the largest traditional Muslim congregations on the East Coast.
The lease has been criticized by many conservative bloggers since a story about it appeared last week on a web site run by Steven Emerson, a controversial terrorism expert. The web site’s report was based on brief, intragovernmental messages about the mosque. The blogosphere’s reaction prompted Collins and Issa to inquire if taxpayer funds were helping to finance an organization with ties to terrorists, according to their aides. They also sought clarification on how GSA vets potential government contractors.
GSA maintains a list of companies excluded from government contracts due to factors like past performance, according to spokeswoman Sahar Wali.
"GSA takes this allegation seriously and is taking steps to review this lease," Wali said in a statement. "Leasing experts and lawyers are currently reviewing the lease in collaboration with our agency partners at Census and Homeland Security. Once reviewed in-line with GSA processes, we will react accordingly to ensure our responsible commitment of taxpayer dollars is upheld."
The lease in question is for office space that was used for early census preparations and is now a regional office for census takers counting people in northern Virginia. When the GSA began lease negotiations, the building was owned by a property management company, but it changed hands before the lease was signed in 2008, said Steven Jost, a spokesman for the Census Bureau.
Mosque leaders have denied that Dar al-Hijrah has terrorist connections. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach programs at the mosque, said the congregation was being “held hostage by innuendo and factless accusations.”
“As honest, law-abiding citizens, we ought to have same rights as other Americans to do business and to support something as good as the U.S. census,” he said. “I really find it objectionable that certain individuals who are against Muslims would impugn the character of the mosque when we haven’t been found guilty of any crime.”
Two of the Sept. 11 hijackers worshiped at Dar al-Hijrah for a short period of time. One of its former imams, Anwar al-Aulaqi, has been linked to accused terrorists, though worshipers say his speeches were not radical when he was serving at Dar al-Hijrah, and he subsequently was denounced by the mosque. Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the Fort Hood shooting suspect, attended Dar al-Hijrah when al-Aulaqi was imam and corresponded with him after the cleric left the United States for Yemen. Though he remains a U.S. citizen, al-Aulaqi has been added to a list of suspected terrorists that the CIA is authorized to kill.
Jost said there have been no issues or incidents regarding either its landlord or a school on the same floor that Emerson says is run by the mosque. The lease has a vacate clause that could be be invoked in mid-August, when Jost said the Census Bureau expects to be finished with its work counting people who didn’t mail in their forms. In the meantime, the agency is concerned about the controversy.
“We’re not happy with the optics being portrayed by this web site,” Jost said, adding he meant the suggestion “that somehow the government might be financing anti-American efforts. The bottom line for us is, anything that distracts from the mission of getting the census done on time and completely and accurately is unfortunate.”
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| May 20, 2010; 7:10 AM ET
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