Aides to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said Tuesday that they are confident they can respond to a House committee’s request for documents related to the redecoration of his office last year, even as a senior career official claimed the department had curbed internal communications on the issue.
The controversy over Carson’s office upgrade surfaced last month, when HUD’s chief administration officer, Helen Foster, publicly charged that she had been instructed to authorize redecorating expenses of more than $5,000, which normally require advance notice to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Foster, who filed a complaint with HUD’s office of special counsel last year, had a follow-up interview Monday with that office.
HUD spokesman Raffi Williams has denied that the department overspent to redecorate the office, saying used chairs were brought from the basement and blinds were replaced for $3,400.
Carson responded to Foster’s complaint a day after The Washington Post and other outlets reported on the charges, although he did not identify her directly, tweeting last Wednesday that “there has been no dishonesty or wrongdoing by us.”
“We suspect, based on past attempts, that they will continue to probe and make further accusations even without evidence or substantiation,” he said in a subsequent tweet. “We will continue to ask for God’s guidance to do what is right.”
On Tuesday, Marcus Smallwood, who directs the office of records and information management in HUD’s office of administration, wrote an open letter to Carson demanding that the secretary apologize to Foster and assure other department employees that they “should feel free to follow the law, ask when they are unsure, and not fear retribution” as a result.
Foster alleges in her complaint that she was reassigned to a lower position, the department’s chief privacy and Freedom of Information Act officer, after complaining about the effort to redecorate and how top officials processed public records requests from the Democratic National Committee.
Foster has now been detailed to the Treasury Department.
On Feb. 28, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Carson to provide a variety of documents “no later than” March 14, including “all documents and communications referring to or relating to” Foster since Aug. 1, along with similar files pertaining to any redecorating done to Carson’s office since Jan. 1, 2017, and to redecorating efforts for previous HUD secretaries’ offices since Jan. 1, 1998.
Smallwood said that given his role as the department’s records officer, “I’m obligated by law to report to you that I do not have confidence that HUD can truthfully provide the evidence being requested by the House Oversight Committee because there has been a concerted effort to stop email traffic regarding these matters prior to August 1st.”
Williams, who said Smallwood’s email is under review, disputed his claim that email traffic about any redecoration of Carson’s office ceased last summer.
“The House Oversight Committee will receive a complete response to their query,” he said. “We can assure you that email traffic at HUD did not cease on August 1st.”