US ambassador to EU overseeing $1 million renovation of residence
By MICHAEL BIRNBAUM, SHANE HARRIS AND JOHN HUDSON | The Washington Post | Published: October 17, 2019
BRUSSELS — Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a central figure in the House impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, is overseeing a nearly $1 million renovation of his government-provided residence, paid for with taxpayer money, that current and former officials have criticized as extravagant and unnecessary.
The work on the ambassador's home on the outskirts of Brussels includes more than $400,000 in kitchen renovations, nearly $30,000 for a new sound system and $95,000 for an outdoor "living pod" with a pergola and electric heating, LED lighting strips and a remote-control system, government procurement records show.
The State Department also has allocated more than $100,000 for an "alternate" residence for Sondland for September and October, while work is performed.
Sondland, a hotel developer and major Trump fundraiser who had no diplomacy background before he was confirmed by the Senate in June 2018, was pivotal to the administration's efforts to pressure the government of Ukraine to investigate Trump's political rivals, according to text messages and testimony from current and former officials.
He is scheduled to be deposed by impeachment investigators on Thursday and plans to say that a text message he sent Sept. 9 to the senior U.S. diplomat in Kyiv denying any quid pro quo with Ukraine, which was desperate for U.S. military aid and diplomatic support, was relayed to him directly by Trump, according to a person familiar with his testimony.
The renovations at the E.U. ambassador's residence, which include $33,000 for handmade furniture from Italy, appeared to be driven by Sondland's lavish tastes rather than practical needs, people familiar with the matter said. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the situation's sensitivity and a desire to be candid with their insights.
The State Department defended the renovations, saying they were part of a "regular 17-year cycle of reviewing and refreshing furnishings and interior décor in representational residences." The renovations were funded in April, after Sondland's confirmation, a spokesman said. "Other minor renovations currently underway" were reviewed and approved by staff members at the U.S. mission and funded in fiscal 2019, which began in October, after Sondland was confirmed.
Two former U.S. officials said Sondland delighted in the trappings of being an American ambassador in Brussels.
"He got addicted," one former official said. "The way you're treated as a senior U.S. official, there's nothing like it in terms of adrenaline and ego boost."
Some of Sondland's colleagues said that, upon arriving in Brussels, he quickly became disappointed with his accommodations and, after unsuccessfully arguing to move to a new residence, began proposing renovations.
The residence, located in a leafy residential area in the Uccle section of Brussels, is not at the pinnacle of Brussels luxury standards, people who have spent time there said. But it was well-suited to its purpose — housing the ambassador and hosting working dinners and social affairs. Whitlock Hall, the residence for the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, is where American diplomats customarily hold major events.
A person who has spoken to Sondland about the upgrades said the residence was "deteriorated and nearly unusable for representational purposes."
But others disputed this claim.
"Bull----," said one person with extensive knowledge of the residence before Sondland arrived. "The house was in excellent condition."
A former U.S. official also called claims of the home's disrepair "false."
"The problem with [the residence] is mainly the location, very far from the center and completely inaccessible by public transit," the former official said. "But the physical state is fine."
During the Obama administration, the house was used two to three nights a week for entertaining. "The gardens were superb, and it had a fantastic swimming pool. The facility is one of the most luxurious of any in Brussels," one person said.
Guests often found themselves invited for dinner or receptions. Sondland's predecessor, Obama appointee Anthony Gardner, held annual July 4 parties there, as a brass band played and European bureaucrats, diplomats, business executives, academics and journalists chomped on hot dogs.
Sondland has called himself a "disruptive diplomat." In public appearances and in private meetings, he has often echoed the rhetoric of his boss, Trump, another hotel developer. Sondland once said to American business representatives that unlike his predecessors, he would "get s--- done," according to people who were present. He called the E.U. "out of touch" and accused it of stalling on trade talks with the Trump administration.
Procurement records show that in the years before Sondland's arrival, the biggest expenses were for regular maintenance of the swimming pool, which cost between $15,000 and $20,000 per year, and for general upkeep and landscaping, save for a $122,000 purchase in 2015 for refrigeration equipment, apparently for the house's catering kitchen.
Under Sondland, however, the State Department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on furniture, fabrics and what is described in documents as a "family kitchen," at a cost of just under $223,000.
That project is distinct from another for a "professional kitchen," costing about $209,000, the records show. Before Sondland's arrival, the home did not have a personal kitchen, and ambassadors and their families would prepare their personal meals in the professional kitchen, according to people familiar with the residence.
The cost of the family kitchen was in line with high-end homes in Brussels, said Jorge Almada, a Brussels-based designer who has experience working on luxury projects.
"It's like in [New York City]," Almada said in an email. "That price is within reason if it's all decked out with appliances. It's always the woodwork which is especially expensive."
Some of the work at the residence seemed designed for the comfort of the occupant, not for making the house suitable for guests.
Records show that $82,000 was spent on a bathroom renovation labeled "backside office." Renovation of a restroom in a vestibule, a more public space, cost about $54,000, the records show.
Sondland has also tried to upgrade the offices where he and the staff of the U.S. mission to the E.U. work, former officials and colleagues said.
"He had a weird obsession with creating a snack room after he visited Uber headquarters in the Bay Area," a former U.S. official said, referring to the ride-hail service headquartered in San Francisco.
"He was often trying to use his own money for renovations that weren't allowed," the former official said.
"He had separate meetings on these issues with administrative services and procurement people," another former official said.
Sondland wouldn't be the first wealthy donor-turned-diplomat to try to spruce up his accommodations.
"It's unusual but not unheard of for ambassadors to pay for renovations with their own money," said Ron Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
The lifestyle of well-heeled donors can sometimes create sticker shock when the expenses become public.
"If you're a multimillionaire used to doing these things for your own place, you might not look at the price tags the same way," Neumann said.
While the work on the residence continues, a former official said, Sondland is staying at a hotel. The person described the hotel as "not the nicest in Brussels, but one of the nicer ones."
Harris and Hudson reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Aaron Davis contributed to this report.