WASHINGTON — Department of Housing and Urban Development officials spent $31,000 on a new dining room set for Secretary Ben Carson’s office in late 2017 — just as the White House circulated its plans to slash HUD’s programs for the homeless, elderly and poor, according to federal procurement records.
The purchase of the custom hardwood table, chairs and hutch came a month after a top agency staff member filed a whistle-blower complaint charging Mr. Carson’s wife, Candy Carson, with pressuring department officials to find money for the expensive redecoration of his offices, even if it meant circumventing the law.
Mr. Carson is also facing questions on another front. Under pressure earlier this month, he requested that HUD’s inspector general investigate his son’s involvement in a department-sponsored listening tour of Baltimore last summer. Department lawyers had warned Mr. Carson that including Ben Carson Jr., an entrepreneur who does business with the federal government, could create a conflict of interest.
Mr. Carson “didn’t know the table had been purchased,” but does not believe the cost was too steep and does not intend to return it, said Raffi Williams, a HUD spokesman.
“In general, the secretary does want to be as fiscally prudent as possible with the taxpayers’ money,” he added.
Department officials did not request approval from the House or Senate Appropriations Committees for the expenditure of $31,561, even though federal law requires congressional approval “to furnish or redecorate the office of a department head” if the cost exceeds $5,000.
Mr. Williams said department officials did not request congressional approval because the dining set served a “building-wide need.” The table is inside the secretary’s 10th-floor office suite.
The decision was made by a “career staffer” who selected the company, Sebree and Associates, which is based in Mr. Carson’s longtime hometown, Baltimore, from a list of preapproved federal contractors, Mr. Williams said.
Neither Mr. Carson nor his wife — who expressed a strong interest in sprucing up the drab, wood-paneled, 1960s-era secretary’s suite, according to several current and former department staff members — requested that the 50-year-old table be replaced, Mr. Williams said.
But he had remarked how the previous table was covered in scratches, scuff marks and cracks. Mr. Williams emailed several pictures of the old table, which looks polished and not visibly scarred, during events held by Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Julián Castro.
The new table, listed as “household furniture” in federal procurement documents, has not yet arrived.
About a month before it was ordered, Helen G. Foster, a former top HUD official, filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, a federal whistle-blower agency, claiming that she had been demoted and transferred after resisting Mrs. Carson’s attempts to get around the $5,000 redecoration law.
The pressure began in January 2017, before Mr. Carson was even confirmed, when HUD’s interim secretary, Craig Clemmensen, told Mrs. Foster to help secure redecorating funds for Mrs. Carson, a frequent visitor to the department’s Washington headquarters who serves as an informal adviser to her husband, the complaint said.
Mr. Clemmensen, acting on Mrs. Carson’s behalf, told Mrs. Foster to “find money” to purchase better furniture for the office — and he quipped that “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair,” according to the complaint, which was reported by The Guardian newspaper.
Mrs. Foster refused to comply, and said she then sent HUD officials the text of the law requiring congressional approval for the purchases. After she was removed from her position as the department’s chief administrative officer, she was made head of the agency’s unit overseeing Freedom of Information Act requests, which she viewed as an act of retribution.
She “has suffered much humiliation and a loss of reputation, and harm to career advancement, as a result of this retaliatory reassignment,” according to a letter written by her lawyer, Joseph Kaplan, to the head of the special counsel investigations unit on Nov. 3.
Mr. Williams said Mrs. Foster was reassigned as part of a routine agency reshuffle, and denied that Mrs. Carson pressured her to help redecorate the office.
“Secretary Carson, to the best of our knowledge, is the only secretary to go to the subbasement at his agency to select the furniture for his office,” Mr. Williams said.
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