Newly released agency emails show that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s wife, Candy, had a direct role in a controversial request to purchase a $31,000 dining set for the secretary’s office — which some watchdog groups say calls into further question his family’s involvement in agency matters.
The questions on expenditures come on the heels of reports of Maryland investor Ben Carson Jr’s participation with his father in a listening tour of Baltimore last year even after the department’s lawyers warned it could be a conflict of interest. The department’s inspector general is looking into that incident.
On Wednesday, HUD’s communications director Raffi Williams confirmed that Candy Carson participated in choosing the $31,000 mahogany and walnut dining set for her husband’s office suite.
“When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles,” Williams told ABC News in a statement.
Williams did not respond to ABC News’ questions about Secretary Carson’s knowledge of and involvement in the purchase.
HUD previously asserted that Secretary Carson was unaware of the department’s contract for the purchase.
Last week, on Facebook, Secretary Carson also denied requesting the dining set for the office saying “I did not request new furniture, but asked if it could be remediated.” He also said that he asked that the department’s contract for a $31,000 dining set be canceled.
HUD previously confirmed that the department ordered a $31,000 dining set last month and that agency tried to have the existing set repaired prior to the order.
At that time HUD said the older dining set had been there since the 1960s.
Emails obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight through a Freedom of Information Act request and publicly released appear to show that the secretary and his wife were directly involved in selecting the furniture.
“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 secretary involving his family in his taxpayer-funded job,” Austin Evers, the organization’s executive director said in a statement.
American Oversight has also filed a lawsuit against HUD for failure to release documents from multiple FOIA requests and filed a lawsuit against multiple agencies Wednesday for renovation records for cabinet secretaries’ personal offices.
The group identifies as nonpartisan. Evers and other leaders at American Oversight have previously worked for Democrats or the Obama administration.
In one of the emails from August 29, 2017, Aida Rodriguez, an administrative officer in the agency, references “print outs of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.”
Another email from February 2017 shows Mrs. Carson’s involvement in the furniture choices.
“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!” Carson’s former chief of staff Sheila Greenwood wrote to Rodriguez.
In another email on August 29 staff members discussed a $24,666 quote for furniture for the secretary’s dining room.
That order included a mahogany dining room table, chairs and a mahogany breakfront. Rodriguez wrote in an email the same day that “I think this is a very reasonable price and the funds are available. We also have a justification for the cost (as you know the furniture hasn’t been changed since 1988) so this should not be a problem.”
The documents released Wednesday also show that HUD spent almost $10,000 to install wi-fi in the office suite that included Carson’s office and the office for the deputy secretary and that Carson asked about using appropriated funds to have portraits painted of previous secretaries to hang in the hallway outside his office.
Another staffer from the department’s financial office responded that federal agencies are not allowed to use appropriated funds for portraits.
The emails also confirm that Carson chose chairs for his office from the basement, where there is furniture in storage. When HUD confirmed the order of the dining set they also said that Carson used furniture the agency already had in storage to replace pieces in his office.
Greenwood and Rodriguez did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment on the emails.
Ben and Candy Carson tweeted from their joint account after the agency confirmed the purchase of the dining set that they did nothing wrong and that “a full disclosure is forthcoming” about the expenditures.
Thank you to so many who have expressed concern for me and my family over the latest accusations. Rest assured that there has been no dishonesty or wrongdoing by us. All the numbers and evidence are being gathered and a full disclosure is forthcoming. 1/2
— Ben & Candy Carson (@RealBenCarson) March 1, 2018
HUD staff were told by the department’s lawyers that there was a $5,000 legal limit for spending to redecorate Carson’s office.
In February 2017 they were sent a memo from some of the department’s lawyers explaining the legal limits on decorating his office and why the department couldn’t pay for a security system for the Carsons’ house in Virginia, according to a copy of the memo provided to and reviewed by ABC News.
The department released documents confiring the purchase of the dining set exceeding that spending limit after the department’s former chief administrative officer Helen Foster filed a complaint that she had been pressured to approve more than the legal limit.
Last week, another HUD employee wrote a letter to Secretary Carson and internal investigators alleging that the department attacked Foster for raising concerns about the spending and that department leadership has been conducting a “witch hunt” since that complaint.
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro said the furniture in the secretary’s office at the department was “fine” and in nice condition during his tenure as secretary in an interview with ABC News Political Director Rick Klein on the “Powerhouse Politics” podcast last week.
“I’m not quite sure what led to the decision to replace it or to spend that much money to do it. It was a bad decision that showed bad judgment, I think it made news because it really points out the hypocrisy of trying to cut $6 million from the budget to serve people who genuinely are working hard and need it for housing assistance and at the same time make the secretary’s office as lavish as possible,” Castro said. “That’s not what we’re supposed to be about in public service.”
Castro served as HUD secretary from 2014 to 2017.
Other watchdog groups, such as the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, have also raised concerns about what they see as Carson’s “improper family involvement” in agency matters.
The department’s furniture purchases go beyond the secretary’s decorating tab.
HUD plans to spend at least $366,000 to replace old and worn out furniture at the agency’s Washington headquarters, according to two federal contracting records from September. The agency signed two contracts with a company called OFS Brands Holdings, Inc.: one for $165,000 for “HUD HQ lounge furniture” and another for $200,000 for “HUD HQ business furniture.”
HUD said last month that the new furniture for the agency will “replenish current stock levels” for current and future employees to use to replace worn out furniture, adding that some offices are using furniture that is 30 years old.
Documents provided to ABC News by HUD show the agency is paying less than the prices quoted on the furniture company’s website due to a blanket agreement negotiated with the company.
HUD has previously acknowledged that there is a stockpile of used furniture in the basement of its headquarters.
Federal rules say that agencies should only buy new furniture when it is “absolutely essential and shall not include upgrading to improve appearance, office decor, or status.” The rule also says that purchases of new furniture will be approved only if there was a significant number of new employees hired to the agency or if it is needed to improve program efficiency.
But purchases are made at the agency level so it’s up to them to decide how to implement that rule. HUD did not respond to questions about its policy.
OFS Brands did not respond to requests for comment.
HUD is expected to announce new efforts to “strengthen internal financial controls” on Thursday, according to a press release from the agency.
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