Housing and Urban Development officials repeatedly consulted with Secretary Ben Carson’s wife about the prospect of redecorating his office last year, according to new documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The push to redecorate Carson’s office in the weeks following President Trump’s inauguration — even before the former pediatric neurosurgeon had taken office — has come under congressional scrutiny in recent weeks. HUD’s former chief administrative officer, Helen Foster, filed a complaint with the department’s special counsel last fall charging that she was demoted in part because she warned other officials that the planned refurbishment would require congressional notification because it would exceed $5,000.
The 163-page release, obtained by the left-leaning group American Oversight, includes email exchanges over the course of last year in which top HUD staffers vet different furniture options and solicit input from Carson’s wife, Candy, as well as the secretary.
In a Feb. 20, 2017, email, for example, Sheila Greenwood — who at the time was serving on Trump’s HUD transition team — wrote to Aida Rodriguez, an administrative officer in the secretary’s office: “I think it was you who told me last week that there were some furniture board/choices for Mrs. Carson to see. I will see her tomorrow if I can get those in the morning. Thanks!”
In her complaint to HUD’s special counsel, Foster charged that shortly before Trump’s inauguration, soon-to-be acting secretary Craig Clemmensen told her that Candy Carson wanted the office overhauled and that she needed to find the money to fund the project. Ben Carson was nominated in December 2016 to lead the agency.
Foster wrote in a Feb. 22 email that she had to answer “endless questions about why I won’t fund more than the $5000 limit” for redecorating the office. “I do like 3 meetings a day on that. . . . I hate this.”
Asked about Candy Carson’s role, HUD spokesman Raffi Williams said: “When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles.”
Last month, he said department staff had gone to considerable length to save taxpayers money in refurbishing the office, in part by bringing up furniture from HUD’s basement.
“Secretary Carson, to our knowledge, is the only HUD Secretary to go to the subbasement of his agency to select the furniture for his office,” Williams said. “All the furniture in his office was purchased by the government prior to his arrival.”
The emails were first reported Wednesday by CNN.
The newly released documents detail the hunt for used agency furniture, with Rodriguez expressing initial skepticism about the search. In a Feb. 21 email, she wrote Greenwood and others that the subbasement would have “nothing suitable for the Secretary” because “the nicest desks/conference tables are the [ones] that are currently occupying the Secretary and [Deputy Secretary’s] private offices.”
Two days later, however, another HUD staffer reports that officials have located used furniture there that will be delivered to both the secretary and deputy secretary’s office.
The furniture hunt did not end in February, however: An aging conference table and its accompanying chairs used for Carson’s private lunches with guests proved so problematic that his deputies decided to order a replacement at the cost of $31,561. The set included a Newport dining table with a mahogany finish along with upholstered chairs.
Carson and his wife weighed in on that purchase as well, according to emails between Rodriguez and colleagues including Greenwood, who now serves as the secretary’s chief of staff.
“I believe Allison has print outs of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out,” Rodriguez wrote, referring to Allison Mills, Carson’s executive assistant.
Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director, said in a statement that the effort to upgrade Carson’s immediate surroundings is at odds with some of his public policy positions, including a comment he made during an interview with the New York Times in May that public housing officials should avoid creating “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’ ”
“Secretary Carson famously argued that public housing should be uncomfortable to discourage people from staying for long periods of time, but apparently his concern for cost-cutting ends at the door to his own office,” Evers said. “While it’s encouraging to see that HUD’s career ethics officials tried to stand up to the extravagant requests from Secretary Carson and his wife, it’s still deeply troubling each time we learn about the secretary involving his family in his taxpayer-funded job.”