Congress Will Continue Probing Pompeo’s Military Housing Long After He Departs State
Internal emails reveal Pompeo may have benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds for upkeep at his residence.
For U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the high-flying life of public office with perks is coming to an end this week. But congressional overseers plan to continue investigations into America’s top diplomat’s use of taxpayer funds even after he hits the exit.
Throughout his term, Pompeo and his wife, Susan, have raised eyebrows with their prodigious use of government resources for personal and political gain, including frequent flights to Kansas, where he was mulling a run for office; quiet meetings with deep-pocketed Republican donors during official government travel; and access to a home at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, reserved for military officers.
Since being sworn in as secretary of state in April 2018, the former Republican lawmaker and CIA chief was able to fend off scrutiny of his actions, persuading President Donald Trump to fire an inspector general who was looking into his family’s use of government funds and stonewalling congressional investigators seeking documents from the department on his spending.
But with Democrats coming into control of the House, Senate, and White House, congressional investigators will encounter fewer hurdles to obtaining official documents. Internal emails from Defense Department officials detailing Pompeo’s housing arrangement at the Fort Myer military base show that Pompeo and the State Department received tens of thousands of dollars in discounts on rent and the cost of utilities, including electricity, water, gas, lawn maintenance, pest control, and interior painting.
“When all is said and done, Pompeo’s taxpayer subsidized housing at Ft. Myer, which in itself is a first, is far from the only example of self-dealing during his time at the State Department,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy in emailed remarks. “Secretary Pompeo has repeatedly put his own interests above the interests of the State Department, undervaluing the career officials and experts he’s supposed to lead.”
In a separate interview with Foreign Policy earlier this month, Meeks vowed to continue probing alleged mismanagement in the State Department under Pompeo.
“We’ve got to continue those investigations,” he said.
In July 2018, the Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the market rate for rent at the site should be $5,300 a month, according to an internal email exchange with Congress obtained by Foreign Policy. Pompeo pays only $3,750. The $1,550 monthly balance is supposed to be paid by the State Department, which claims a portion of the house is used by diplomatic security personnel. But the Defense Department has given State a steep discount, charging only $870 a year, meaning that the military is covering some $17,730 of the rent on Pompeo’s residence.
And that doesn’t include utilities and upkeep on the property.
A Navy lawyer, weighing an earlier request in 2018 by the State Department to house Pompeo at a Naval residence near Foggy Bottom, estimated that maintaining a home on the facilities ranged from at least $35,000 to $50,000 a year, and that it was not uncommon to exceed that amount, according to a Navy memo obtained by the government transparency group American Oversight and first reported by Politico.
The State Department ultimately decided to drop the request and pursue housing at Fort Myer.
A State Department spokesperson declined to respond to a list of questions about Pompeo’s housing but said in a statement: “The questions you are asking relate to the operational security of the Secretary of State. We do not comment on those matters and we will not.”
“The arrangement has been fully vetted and was approved by the Department of Defense and is allowed under applicable regulations. The decision to move to a secure environment is obvious in these times, and there is currently no waitlist for housing at the location,” the statement read.
Pompeo’s initial requests for military housing—a largely unprecedented move for the nation’s top diplomat—set off alarm bells for both legal and practical reasons, according to a memo prepared by a U.S. Navy lawyer at the time.
The Navy lawyer went as far as to question whether the department was violating U.S. law by devoting resources to helping the secretary of state secure housing in the Washington, D.C., area.
“Given that obtaining and paying for housing is a personal responsibility of civilian employees of the Government, [Department of State] Office of Counsel may need to consider whether the agency has been authorized by law and provided appropriations by Congress to expend time and agency resources to locate and secure personal housing for the Secretary of State,” the lawyer wrote, according to the memo, dated May 8, 2018.
Outside of the military, the president, and the vice president, it is rare for the U.S. government to directly secure or help fund housing for government officials, including cabinet members.
The Army email cited only two cases in which civilians were housed in a military residence, one in which a “previous senior Department of Defense official briefly occupied temporary headquarters before receiving permanent housing elsewhere.” Another example involved “an Army active duty general officer (LTG) who occupied a house on Ft. Myer while serving as the National Security Advisor.” The email doesn’t identify the officer, but retired Gen. Colin Powell was still in the military when he served as President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor.
Securing housing in a market as pricey as the Washington area can be difficult. It was less of an issue for recent past secretaries of state, including John Kerry and former oil industry magnate Rex Tillerson, both worth millions of dollars. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton resided at a six-bedroom Washington brick neo-Georgian home she and former President Bill Clinton had purchased near Embassy Row in 2000 for $2.85 million. But as secretary of state, Pompeo earns about $200,000 per year, more than double the district’s median household income.
In the 1980s, George Shultz, the secretary of state at the time, lobbied to purchase a permanent residence for his successors, arguing that it would ultimately save American taxpayers money. But the plan was killed off by the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch critic of the State Department who insisted on a series of strict financial conditions that undermined the feasibility of the proposal.
The State Department owns the land on the site of the former U.S. Naval Observatory, which served as the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery until 2012, when State took over. But the Navy has retained control of three residences on the site, Navy Hill, where they house senior Naval officials.
Patrick Kennedy, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for management, said he could not offer a judgment on whether Pompeo paid a fair market rent for the house. But he believes there is a legitimate case for housing U.S. secretaries of state in a permanent residence or even at military bases, citing the exceptionally rigorous security protocols that are in place and the large natural perimeter.
“Protecting the secretary of state has become more and more problematic as you get more kooks,” he said. “You would like to have a larger perimeter around the house, where people couldn’t approach or a car bomb couldn’t be set off. So being in a house on a military base is a good thing for security and makes life easier for diplomatic security.”
He suggested the three houses on Navy Hill could serve the secretary of state, national security advisor, and another senior official needing protection.
The State Department has in the past insisted that Pompeo’s move to a military base saves taxpayer money, easing the burden on his round-the-clock security details and measures to counteract possible surveillance or eavesdropping. The department told the New York Times in 2018 that Pompeo’s move to military housing cut taxpayer funding for his security by about $400,000 per year—from around $2 million to $1.6 million. At the time, the department insisted Pompeo would pay “fair market value” for the home.
But the new data provided to Congress and obtained by Foreign Policy suggests otherwise, indicating that Pompeo benefited from thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars in upkeep.
Pompeo and his wife were the target of an investigation into the possible misuse of taxpayer funds by the State Department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, whom the president fired on May 15, 2020, at the request of Pompeo. Linick was reportedly investigating whether Pompeo had improperly tasked a political appointee to carry out personal chores for him and his wife.
But the top U.S. diplomat largely avoided scrutiny of his spending by getting Trump to dismiss Linick. Pompeo later defended the decision to fire Linick, saying he had lost confidence in him. He also denied having knowledge that he was under investigation. “I couldn’t possibly have retaliated,” he said.
“Frankly, I should have done it some time ago,” Pompeo told reporters.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch