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Ben Carson cleared by HUD inspector general of misconduct in ordering $31,000 dining room set for office suite

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on housing finance reform on Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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The inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development cleared Secretary Ben Carson of misconduct in the ordering of a $31,000 dining room set for his secretarial suite, according to a copy of the investigation obtained Thursday by The Washington Post.

The investigation was launched more than a year ago following accusations that Carson had violated federal law in 2017 by ordering furniture above the $5,000 legal limit for office redecorating without notifying congressional appropriators.

“We found no evidence indicating that either Secretary or Mrs. Carson exerted improper influence on any departmental employee in connection with the procurement,” the 14-page report said.

HUD officials had failed to notify congressional appropriations committees, as required by law, when it obligated $31,561 in agency funds to buy new dining room furniture for Carson’s office suite in December 2017, the inspector general said. But Carson ultimately canceled the order in March 2018 following media reports about the large purchase order.

The investigation concluded that the purchase order was initiated after HUD staff determined that the 30-year-old furniture in Carson’s suite was in poor condition and should be replaced. Staff also told Carson that departmental funds were available and that the money would be lost if not spent by a certain date, the report said. The evidence showed that Carson was “fine” with replacing the furniture but left the details to his staff and his wife, Candy Carson, who provided “stylistic input.”

Carson told investigators that it “seemed like” he had heard before the order being placed that he could not spend more than $5,000 to improve his office space, but said he was under the impression that the dollar limit applied only to his personal office — not to his entire suite, the report said. Carson said he first learned about the price tag for the dining room set from media reports. Candy Carson declined to be interviewed during the inspector general’s investigation.

The agency later acknowledged that placing such a large furniture order without notifying Congress violated federal law, and that it historically has lacked effective controls to avoid such scenarios, the report said. The $5,000 redecorating allotment for the offices of presidentially appointed officials had already been used to replace the blinds in Carson’s secretarial suite.

The inspector general’s investigation blamed department officials for the oversight.

“Given that the plain language of governing appropriations law expressly prohibits obligating in excess of $5,000 to purchase ‘furniture’ for use in the ‘suite of offices’ ” controlled by the department head, the report said, “we believe that department officials involved in this process should have been aware that notification to Congress was required here. The fact that evidently no one involved in this procurement had such awareness indicates a systemic failure.”

The agency has since reviewed its procurement procedures and established better controls, the report said.

At least one person at HUD, though, had flagged the $5,000 spending limit. Helen Foster, the agency’s former chief administrative officer, had said in a complaint that she was instructed by staffers to “find money” after she expressed concerns about the legality of the office expenses. Foster subsequently accused the agency of demoting her in retaliation for raising those concerns and later resigned.

“The people involved in this furniture procurement all reported to me, and everyone was aware of the $5,000 limit and the requirement to notify Congress,” Foster said in an interview Thursday. “They were not clueless. The decision to pursue the dining set happened the month after I was removed."

Foster, who was not mentioned in the inspector general’s report, said she was interviewed as part of the investigation.

Carson, in an interview with FOX Business Network’s “Varney & Co.” on Thursday, said he was “disgusted” by the media coverage of the furniture debacle.

“They try to claim that I want to buy expensive furniture while I’m trying to take money away from the poor people. That was the only narrative that they were interested in,” Carson said. “There’s probably no one in Washington who cares less about furniture than I do.”

The inspector general’s report was first obtained by Fox News.