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Ben Carson defends purchase of new $31,000 set: ‘The dining room table was actually dangerous’

Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, listens during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg News)

Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said Tuesday that the purchase of a $31,000 dining set for his office was made for safety reasons and after consultation with his wife, Candy Carson.

Testifying during an appearance on Capitol Hill after weeks of scrutiny over the furniture set — a mahogany dining table, chairs and a hutch for private lunches with guests — Carson called the decision to replace the existing set with the new one a “facilities” issue and not a decorating one because of concerns about the old set.

“It’s my understanding that the facilities people felt that the dining room table was actually dangerous,” he told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “People are being stuck by nails, a chair collapsed with somebody sitting in it, it’s 50 years old.”

Questions have swirled about Carson’s role in the furniture purchase since its disclosure in February, leading to speculation that Carson could be yet another prominent member to depart President Trump’s administration. One of many Trump Cabinet members to fall under scrutiny for what some have criticized as excessive personal spending, Carson has also been questioned for his family’s role in official business, including that of his son, Ben Jr., an investor who helped organize meetings in Baltimore last summer, despite the advice of department lawyers against it.

On Tuesday, Carson said that a few months after he became secretary, he was told — by whom, he did not specify — that the dining room set in his 10th-floor office needed to be changed.

Carson said. “I asked my wife also to help me with that.”

Carson said he and his wife were shown some catalogues — again he did not clarify by whom — and said that he had communicated that the prices were “beyond what I wanted to pay.”

“I made it clear that just didn’t seem right to me,” Carson said. “And I left it with my wife. I said, ‘Help choose something.’”

He also said that his wife chose the style and color “with the caveat that we were not happy with the pricing and they needed to find something.”

“If anybody knew my wife, they would realize how ridiculous this was,” Carson said. “She’s the most frugal person in the world.”

He said that he first heard about the table’s hefty price tag around the time that news reports came out about it, Carson said, at which point he “immediately had it canceled.”

Carson’s testimony appeared to contradict previous accounts of the case.

HUD spokesman Raffi Williams initially told media outlets that “Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased,” when news of its purchase became public in February, and emails between HUD staffers emerged later that indicated that Carson and his wife had weighed in on the purchase.

HUD Secretary Carson’s wife weighed in on redecorating effort, new emails show

Carson was asked about his spokesman’s quote by committee member Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.).

“I can tell you what I did,” he said. “I do not intend to be responsible for what anyone else said.”

In his opening statement, Price, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, called the purchases and their aftermath “ethical lapses.”

“It is bad enough,” Price said of purchasing the expensive dining set. “More disturbing are the false public statements, compounded by the roles that the secretary’s family has taken in the department. Public service is a public trust.”

The table episode has drawn scrutiny from Congress because of its price tag, as well as complaints that a career HUD official was demoted in retaliation for expressing concern about the office expenses and how to comply with open-records laws, which require notifying the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for decorating expenditures of more than $5,000.

Carson answered questions about the notification requirement by pointing back to the supposed safety issues of the previous table, making it a “facilities issue not a decorating issue.”

“I don’t think there is a notification required for facilities issues as there is for decorating issues,” he said.

In her complaint, Helen Foster, the former chief administrative officer for HUD who says she was demoted as retaliation, said that she was instructed by staffers to “find money” for decorating the secretary’s office.

‘I do like 3 meetings a day on that’: HUD official complained about effort to redecorate Carson’s office

The flap over the expensive dining table is one of many episodes involving expenditures by Trump Cabinet members that have drawn scrutiny. Tom Price, who was Trump’s first secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned in September after hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer-funded flights on private and military planes for routine trips were reported by Politico.

Questions have emerged about a government trip Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, an Obama administration holdover, took to Europe in July in which he and his wife went to Wimbledon and took a river cruise in between meeting with foreign officials. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been criticized for spending more than $12,000 in taxpayer funds on a short flight to Montana on a private plane owned by an oil and gas company. And Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt is under scrutiny for a trip of an estimated $120,000 to Italy along with nine other agency officials, that included $36,000 for use of a military jet to catch a flight in New York.

“I’m not really big into decorating,” Carson testified on Tuesday. “If it was up to me, my office would probably look like a hospital waiting room.”

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