KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Despite growing concerns, in a letter obtained by NBC Action News, GSA Administrator Martha N. Johnson said “there is no evidence that suggests wrongdoing” at the Bannister Federal Complex and calls the site of increasing health concerns “safe.”
Johnsons made the comments in a letter to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), amid mounting evidence of health concerns, toxins and harsh criticism from the agency’s own inspector general.
The GSA Inspector General audit found Bannister officials misled the public about contamination at the facility.
As escalating federal inquiries identify concerns, Johnson's letter to McCaskill downplayed safety concerns.
“The Bannister Federal Complex in Kansas City has been and continues to be a safe place to work and for all the people occupying GSA-controlled space,” Johnson said in the letter to McCaskill.
Although GSA officials maintain Johnson has been briefed on the contamination issues and health concerns at the Bannister complex a FOIA request by NBC Action News showed no e-mail history on the subject.
“After searching through our data bases we did not find any e-mails and attachments discussing the death list, health risks, or employee illness at the Bannister Federal Complex where Administrator Martha Johnson was a recipient or a sender,” said GSA Spokeswoman Emily Barocas in response to the FOIA request.
The GSA Inspector General concluded that Bannister operated such a weak safety program that it was incapable of documenting whether the building had been safe in previous years.
As for current health risks, a separate inspector general investigation conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded “the public health risks” at the Bannister Federal Complex “have not been determined.” The critical audit was issued the same day Johnson penned the letter to McCaskill calling the facility safe.
“I believe that there were things in the IG's report that should be very troubling to the administrator of GSA in terms of how the investigation was dealt with,” McCaskill told NBC Action News.
"The Administrator's letter to Senator McCaskill is a discussion of the findings of the IG (inspector general) report," said GSA spokeswoman Emily Barocas. "GSA's priority is to provide our employees with safe working conditions."
The inspector general report concluded the GSA has misled the public about contamination at the facility, but Johnson ruled out intentional deception.
“In no case does a fair reading of the IG report lead to a conclusion that employees or their actions deliberately misled the public of workers at the complex about safety or health issues,” Johnson wrote McCaskill.
McCaskill has launched her own investigation into agency’s hiring of the a public relations firm at the height of the NBC Action News Investigation.
“I am very disappointed in how GSA has dealt with this issue,” McCaskill said. “I don't think they've been as forthcoming as they should have.”
McCaskill responded to Johnson in a letter stating GSA had not been forthcoming in providing information in a Senate subcommittee investigation into the the agency’s hiring of the publicity agency to manage the “impending media crisis.”
“I am writing to renew my request for information,” McCaskill wrote Johnson in a letter stating the agency had not been responsive.
The inspector general reviews were launched at the demand of since retired Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.) when, through a Freedom of Information Act, NBC Action News obtained a document showing Senior GSA Regional Commissioner Mary Ruwwe had obtained a death list of workers that colleagues feared had died because of toxins.
Johnson's letter did not address the death list or the EPA Inspector General report.
Although the GSA denied knowledge of the death list for months prior to the FOIA discovery, the e-mail indicated Ruwwe had reviewed the death list and forwarded it to the acting GSA Administrator and another senior GSA official in Washington.
According to a GSA spokeswoman, Ruwwe is the same official who authorized a $234,000 public relations contract to manage the growing inquiry.
Appointed by President Obama, Johnson is the top official overseeing the nation’s federal government buildings, including the Bannister Federal Complex.
Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) also expressed concern.
“I will fight to ensure that these employees work in a safe environment and get the answers that they deserve,” Blunt said.
“I am sending a letter to GSA to follow up on their assessment and I’m committed to working to ensure complete transparency in this process.”
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver issued a statement supporting the EPA’s continued independent testing at Bannister.
“The Complex will require sustained attention in the coming years as together we work to resolve any environmental issues so it can be returned to the community as an positive asset,”