The wife of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson assisted HUD officials in selecting furniture for the expensive taxpayer-funded office redecoration that has recently drawn public criticism.
The redecoration, which began prior to Carson’s official confirmation, came under congressional scrutiny in February after HUD’s former chief administrative officer, Helen Foster, publicly alleged she was demoted for informing her colleagues that she could not sign off on the project absent congressional approval, as the cost would exceed $5,000.
A series of emails, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the liberal watchdog group American Oversight, reveals that Carson’s wife, Candy, was routinely consulted as officials were selecting tens of thousands of dollars in new office furniture.
“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!” one HUD transition team member wrote to Aida Rodriguez, an administrative officer in the secretary’s office during the transition.
Foster, who filed a complaint with the HUD Office of Special Counsel in the fall, claims then-incoming HUD director Craig Clemmensen told her Candy Carson had requested that the office be redecorated and instructed her to find the money to do so.
In one particularly telling example of Mrs. Carson’s influence, she helped select a $31,561 conference table and accompanying chairs to replace another set that was in the office when Carson began his tenure.
“Secretary’s dining room set needed,” read the subject line on one August email from an administration staffer to Carson’s assistant. The email body subsequently refers to “printouts of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.”
The newly obtained email seems to contradict a sweeping denial issued by HUD spokesman Raffi Williams last month.
“Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased,” Williams had told CNN when asked about the couple’s involvement in selecting the dining set.
Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director, cast Carson’s use of public funds as hypocritical considering the secretary’s public emphasis on fiscal responsibility.
“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 secretary involving his family in his taxpayer-funded job.”
Williams acknowledged that Mrs. Carson was involved in the process but downplayed her role, insisting that she simply chose furniture from a pre-determined set of options.
“When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles.”