Watchdog: Accountability

Eisenhower memorial staff books oversight meeting during congressional recess

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Congress has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with the nine full-time federal employees tasked with designing a $150 million memorial to Dwight Eisenhower not far from the Capitol.

Now, the staff has enraged the board overseeing it, half of whose members are congressmen, by scheduling an important board meeting during a congressional recess without asking whether the board members would be available.

“Executive Director [Carl] Reddel has asked me to send out a ‘Save-the-Date’ notice that our next commission meeting will occur on Wednesday, September 17th at 3 p.m. We are still determining the location but are hopeful it will be on the Capitol campus,” an Eisenhower Memorial Commission staff assistant wrote to board members on Aug. 27, according to emails obtained by the Washington Examiner.

She had not previously asked them about their availability. On Tuesday, she abruptly rescheduled.

“As a follow-up to the message sent last week, we have an update on the commission meeting location and date. Due to space and time constraints, the meeting will now occur on Tuesday, Sept. 23rd at 3 p.m. It will take place in Room 902 (9th floor) of the Hart Senate Office Building. We will continue to ensure you are informed and prepared prior to this meeting. Thank you.”

The House is adjourned the entire week of Sept. 22 for a "district work period" so members can campaign in their home states.

The commission staff is tasked with carrying out the orders of the 12-person commission, which is made up of four House members, four senators, and four presidential appointees.

As the Examiner reported in April, the man in charge of the commission is Rocco Siciliano, a nonagenarian former aide in the Eisenhower White House.

An assistant to the chairman said he was too old and unwell to take questions about the project or travel to most meetings.

Sciliano's status has left power resting with the staff’s director and deputy director. The commission has paid millions to the architecture firm of Frank Gehry, known for his extravagant designs, and proceeded with plans despite fierce opposition to the design from all sides, including Congress and federal regulatory bodies.

Eisenhower’s grandchildren say the Gehry design doesn’t embody the late president's modesty, is a waste of money and would mar the landscape of the area, which is off the National Mall and a few blocks from the Capitol.

The commission’s staff had 95 percent of the detailed construction documents drawn up at great expense before regulatory bodies approved the preliminary design, and then modified the design only slightly in response to concerns from commissioners and others.

Congress has made its discontent known. Earlier this year, the commission requested more than $50 million, but only $1 million was approved — even though House and Senate appropriators serve on the 12-member commission.

The commission must depend almost entirely on taxpayer dollars because the staff has alienated members of the Eisenhower family who might have used their contacts and prestige to raise private funds, according to a fundraising report it paid for.

The chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of public space, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, warned that Congress was concerned that the staff had ignored widespread criticism of the Gehry design.

In addition, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and other members of Congress have scolded the commission for its unresponsiveness.

"I think it's unbusinesslike for the staff to send out a single date for a commission meeting without first polling the availability of the commissioners, and then to change that date to another date with a specific time, again without polling the commissioners," said Bruce Cole, an Eisenhower commissioner appointed by President Obama and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President George W. Bush. "It's a very important meeting."

Chris Cimko, the commission’s spokeswoman, told the Washington Examiner the meeting time could be changed yet again:

“We always seek to maximize the availability of our congressional commissioners. Since the message to commissioners went out at 3:01 p.m. this afternoon, we haven't yet received RSVPs. Should it appear that members cannot make it, we'll certainly reconsider and seek new dates and availability of meeting space.”

Cimko is accustomed to working for nonagenarians, having served as an aide to Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., during the waning days of his Senate career.

When Thurmond died in 2003, he was then the oldest and longest-serving U.S. senator ever.

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Luke Rosiak

Senior Watchdog Reporter/Data Editor
The Washington Examiner

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