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Ben Carson’s HUD: Political loyalty required, no experience necessary

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson watches as President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for a dinner at the White House in August. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded promotions and pay increases to five political operatives with no housing policy experience within their first months on the job, demonstrating what government watchdogs and career staff describe as a premium put on loyalty over expertise.

The raises, documented in a Washington Post analysis of HUD political hires, resulted in annual salaries between $98,000 and $155,000 for the five appointees, all of whom had worked on Donald Trump’s or Ben Carson’s presidential campaigns. Three of them did not list bachelor’s degrees on their résumés.

The political hires were among at least 24 people without evident housing policy experience who were appointed to the best-paying political positions at HUD, an agency charged with serving the poorest Americans. They account for a third of the 70 HUD appointees at the upper ranks of the federal government, with salaries above $94,000, according to the Post review of agency records.

The limited experience at the upper reaches of the agency — HUD Secretary Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has no prior housing, executive or government background — injected confusion into the rollout of policy initiatives and brought delays to even routine functions, according to interviews with 16 current and former career staff members.

“This administration is different, because the people coming in really don’t know housing at all,” said Ron Ashford, who retired as director of HUD’s public-housing supportive-service programs in January after 22 years at the agency. “As a result, they’re pursuing initiatives that aren’t grounded in reality.”

The Post conducted its analysis of HUD appointees using government information on their salaries and positions through mid-March, obtained through a public-records request from the Office of Personnel Management. The Post also examined HUD documents — including official résumés, internal emails, appointee salaries and job titles, and documentation of promotions and other position changes — obtained as of mid-July by American Oversight, a watchdog group formed last year to investigate the Trump administration, through separate, multiple records requests as well as other publicly available information such as LinkedIn profiles.

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Under the Obama administration, senior political appointees to HUD were widely recognized housing experts who were tapped to stabilize the agency after the housing market crash. Of the 66 most highly paid appointees, at least seven — 11 percent — appear to have lacked housing-related experience, according to a Post review of the professional backgrounds of those named in the 2012 Plum Book, a compilation of political appointees published every four years.

Of the 24 Trump administration HUD appointees without housing policy experience on their résumés or LinkedIn profiles, 16 listed work on either Carson’s or Trump’s presidential campaigns — or had personal connections to their families.

They include a former event manager turned senior HUD adviser making $131,767 after a 23 percent raise and a former real estate agent whose new job is to advise a HUD administrator, a longtime Trump family aide who also lacks housing credentials.

HUD spokesman Raffi Williams said in a written statement to The Post that appointing people with “varying experiences to government is not unusual” and makes HUD a “more dynamic organization.” The majority of top political appointees do have housing backgrounds, he noted.

“This administration has assembled a senior team at HUD with a deep well of experience in housing, community development and mortgage finance. Any suggestion to the contrary discounts their public service to the American people,” Williams said. “HUD employees represent a broad array of backgrounds and experiences, as different roles have unique responsibilities and require diverse skill sets.”

Brian Sullivan, another HUD spokesman, said in a phone conversation that the ranks of political appointees “change all the time” and that at least 10 of the 70 best-paid appointees included in the Post analysis have left the agency.

The Post laid out the scope of its analysis to the agency, which did not dispute the salaries and job titles of the individuals named in this story. HUD did not provide updated salary information or answer questions about appointees’ promotions and job duties.

Scott Keller, former chief of staff to Alphonso Jackson, a HUD secretary under President George W. Bush, also defended the hirings.

“Political staffers are not expected to be subject matter experts in every case,” said Keller, who had coached Carson during his confirmation hearings. “Their job is to keep the trains running on time. And they don’t need to be housing policy experts to do that.”

Political appointees without housing experience have driven controversial initiatives that were later put on hold by the agency or are likely to be blocked by Congress, according to former officials and other experts who work closely with the agency as well as HUD staff, most of whom spoke on the condition that they not be identified because of fear of retaliation or their current business with HUD.

In one high-profile episode, Carson unveiled a proposal in April to triple the minimum rent paid by families receiving federal housing assistance and to make it easier for local housing authorities to impose more-stringent work requirements for those receiving government benefits.

The plan was largely driven by Ben Hobbs, a special policy adviser in HUD’s Office of Public and Indian Housing, according to four people with knowledge of Hobbs’s role. Hobbs has no experience as a policymaker but spent three months as a graduate fellow in “welfare studies” at the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2016 and five months as a poverty consultant at the libertarian Charles Koch Institute in 2013, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“As an ideologue, he wanted to institute his grandiose concept,” said a former HUD official. “This policy was dead on arrival because it was rolled out poorly.”

Hobbs’s inexperience showed in his failure to build support around the policy within Congress or HUD, the former official said. Two others with direct knowledge said he neglected to secure the buy-in of career employees, even though many had a long-held goal of changing the rent structure.

By June, even Carson appeared to back off the initiative, saying that there was no longer a pressing need to raise rents after Congress reinstated Trump’s proposed budget cuts.

Hobbs, who started at HUD making $79,720, took a leave from the agency in July when he was promoted to Trump’s domestic-policy council, according to his LinkedIn profile. Hobbs directed all Post questions to HUD, which noted that he had also gained experience during three months as a graduate fellow on the House Ways and Means Committee in 2016. The agency added that Hobbs, who lists a master’s degree in public policy from the London School of Economics on his profile, wrote his dissertation on the social safety net.

There were other policy misfires that career staff members said resulted from inexperienced leadership.

Carson’s signature EnVision Centers initiative — hubs to be backed by nonprofit foundations to help low-income families access employment, education and health care — duplicates existing centers near public-housing developments, staffers said. Those decades-old efforts had limited success moving families out of poverty, a fact that a potential funder said foundation representatives noted during a meeting with Carson.

“The problem is they’re creating a program without knowing the landscape,” Ashford said. “They didn’t do the groundwork and investigation to take into account the failures or holes of the past.”

HUD staff said Carson failed to attract much financial support from foundations or the White House, which has budgeted just $2 million toward the initiative. Nevertheless, Carson announced the launch of 18 such centers during a June ceremony in his hometown of Detroit.

The lack of experience in a chronically understaffed agency brought even routine work to a halt for much of Carson’s first year at HUD because none of the appointees felt comfortable signing off on grants and technical guidance, according to career staffers.

“There’s a huge learning curve getting leadership up to the point where they are willing to make a decision on something because they just don’t understand the concepts,” said a longtime career staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

The White House was slow to fill HUD’s leadership ranks, with no nominees to eight of 13 Senate-confirmed positions for the first six months of Carson’s tenure. Four nominees, including the assistant secretaries overseeing policy development and research as well as public and Indian housing, have yet to be confirmed.

“The assistant secretaries, along with the secretary, are supposed to be the ones setting policy,” said David Horne, former chief of staff to Steve Preston, Bush’s last HUD secretary. “The fact that they weren’t confirmed as readily as in the past substantially paralyzed parts of the agency.”

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The White House said that the agency has been carrying out its mission effectively. “Starting with Secretary Carson, the Trump administration has assembled an experienced and well-qualified team of leaders at HUD,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

Over the past year, the White House did appoint a number of senior officials with housing experience.

Pamela Patenaude, confirmed as deputy secretary last September, spent more than two decades in housing policy and economic development and had served as Bush’s assistant secretary for community planning and development at HUD. She remains respected by career staff and housing advocates and, by many accounts, is the main administrator running the agency.

Still, HUD triggered a public outcry in March with the leak of a proposal circulated to political appointees — but not to career staff — to drop the focus on combating discrimination from the agency’s mission statement.

Patenaude later apologized to civil rights and consumer protection advocates at a forum hosted by the National Fair Housing Alliance, according to two people who attended the April event at the Marriott Marquis in Washington.

“She described it as an honest mistake that happened while she was on vacation. She said it was not this evil, pernicious thing that HUD was trying to do,” recalled one of the attendees. “She reiterated her personal goal of advancing fair housing.”

Many of Trump’s HUD appointees without housing experience hold titles such as “special assistant” or “senior adviser,” often relatively high-paying positions that require no public vetting.

“The American public has reasonable expectations that people being paid by them and serve them are going to be well qualified,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group focused on improving government performance that has previously worked with The Post on tracking presidential appointments. “The administration ought to publicize who is being put into these political positions and what their expectations are for them.”

Political appointees who did not list housing policy experience on their résumés and who landed in high-paying roles include Carson’s chief of staff, Andrew Hughes, a former plumbing and HVAC salesman who had also worked as a special projects coordinator at the University of Texas System’s Washington lobbying shop.

Hughes, a Carson and Trump campaign worker, listed Carson as a reference on his résumé. HUD would not divulge his current salary, but he was making $155,000 last December as deputy chief of staff, a 14 percent salary increase from his initial appointment as the agency’s liaison to the White House. Hughes did not respond to multiple messages seeking requests for comment.

Keller, former HUD Secretary Jackson’s chief of staff, said that Hughes’s close bond with Carson, developed during his work on the campaign, makes up for his lack of housing background.

Mason Alexander, a former event manager, entered HUD last January as a special assistant making $107,435 a year. A HUD staffer who recently resigned said Alexander had started in executive scheduling, planning Carson’s travel and listening tour. By September, he was promoted to senior adviser, though not in a policy role, and received a 23 percent raise, bringing his salary to $131,767.

Alexander’s résumé says he has an associate degree in communication from Tallahassee Community College and a professional background in strategic planning. The résumé noted that Alexander had helped prepare press staging areas for Trump campaign rallies.

Alexander did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him.

Barbara Gruson, a New York real estate agent and property manager who organized voter outreach for the Trump campaign, started at HUD in January 2017 as a special assistant in public affairs making $90,350. She confirmed in a brief phone call that she does not have a bachelor’s degree. By May of that year, she was earning $97,869 as adviser to regional administrator Lynne Patton, a longtime aide and adviser to the Trump family who entered HUD as a senior adviser.

Patton was later tapped to oversee the agency’s New York and New Jersey region, a position paying $160,000 a year. She dismissed criticism about her lack of housing expertise, telling The Post last year that she is qualified for the job, given her years serving as liaison to the Trumps.

Patton said in a new statement that appointees, including Gruson, are now “soundly proficient in every single program area.” Gruson has “over 20 years of multi-faceted real estate experience,” Patton said. “The American people voted for both a president and an administration that brings common sense and business acumen to Washington, D.C.”

Richard Youngblood, a political consultant and former mortgage loan officer who organized Ohio evangelicals for the Trump campaign, started at HUD as a special assistant in January 2017 making $119,489. His résumé does not list a college degree. In August 2017, Youngblood was named the director of HUD’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and received a 10 percent raise, bringing his salary to $131,767. He said he was instructed not to comment.

Stephanie Holderfield, a real estate agent and political consultant who had worked on Carson’s and Trump’s presidential campaigns, also started at HUD as a special assistant in the community planning and development office before being named a senior policy adviser in the Office of Public and Indian Housing. Her résumé says she expects to graduate from college in December. She did not respond to requests for comment.

Patton said Holderfield’s two decades of work experience includes two years as Champaign County board member, during which she told Patton she helped shape Illinois housing policy and zoning ordinances.

The Trump administration even filled a job overseeing an Obama initiative that the current White House no longer appears to support, appointing John Gibbs, a former conservative commentator and software developer without housing experience, as director of the Strong Cities and Strong Communities program last May, according to HUD and Office of Personnel Management records.

“That was an Obama program that had effectively ended,” said Danielle Arigoni, former director of HUD’s Office of Economic Development who left the agency in September 2017.

The agency confirmed that Gibbs never worked as director of that program.

Gibbs, who promoted a conspiracy theory on Twitter that Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman had taken part in a satanic ritual, transitioned last August to the role of senior adviser in the Office of Community Planning and Development.

A four-page job description for Gibbs’s $131,767-a-year role specified that the senior adviser should possess knowledge of the Fair Housing Act and underlying principles related to the enforcement of laws affecting HUD programs.

A recently updated online directory of HUD principals lists Gibbs as a senior adviser to Carson. Gibbs declined to comment. The agency said Gibbs, whose résumé includes a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, learned about developing and analyzing housing policy during his studies.

Gibbs’s background is a mismatch for his position at HUD because of his belief that government benefits — a core function of the agency — hurt, rather than help, the poor, said Cliff Taffet, who retired last July as general deputy assistant secretary in HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development after 26 years at the agency.

“In some cases, we’re populating the government with people who can’t function in their roles because they don’t believe in the mission of the agency,” Taffet said.

Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said that every administration faces pressures to find positions for campaign workers.

“But every administration I’ve seen before this one tried to make sure that the balance was struck so that in positions that matter, you had people with the appropriate expertise and talent and backgrounds,” he said.

Career staff at the upper end of the HUD pay scale have at least a bachelor’s degree plus years of related experience, said Sara Pratt, a former deputy assistant secretary for fair-housing enforcement and programs. But political appointees come into HUD under different standards, Pratt and others said.

Where appointees end up on the pay scale depends on the position to which they are assigned and their previous salary history, said Keller, the former Bush official.

“The rules are different for politicals,” Keller said. “If you don’t have a college degree in these positions, it comes down to judgment and resilience, the ability to work 14-hour days and keep a clear head in this maelstrom.”

Preston, former HUD secretary under Bush, said it’s not critical for all political appointees to enter with deep housing backgrounds, as long as they are willing to seek the expertise of career staff, who he said senior appointees relied heavily upon during his time leading the agency.

“Knowing stuff doesn’t mean you can get stuff done,” Preston said.

HUD staffers say the administration has struggled with recruitment and has had to lower the bar for many political appointees.

“The reality is they’ve had a hard time finding political people who are qualified in this industry willing to come into this agency,” said a longtime HUD staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

Another former career employee said staffers had hoped Trump would appoint “non-ideological” business-oriented Republicans who would improve the agency’s technological and procurement shortcomings and make HUD run more efficiently.

“I was trying to convey to the team that there were important things they needed to be engaged with and make decisions or raise issues,” the staffer said. “Otherwise things just sit or self-implode.”

Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.