Congress investigates Ben Carson’s housing department over staffing claims

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House committee seeks information from secretary over allegations was demoted for rejecting expensive redecorations

Congress on Wednesday began investigating allegations that an official at Ben Carson’s department of housing and urban development (Hud) was demoted for refusing to approve expensive redecorations to his office.

Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican who chairs the powerful House oversight committee, asked Carson, the Hud secretary, for information on the allegations by Helen Foster, revealed by the Guardian on Tuesday.

Gowdy told Carson in a letter that his committee wanted to “determine whether Hud adhered to the applicable spending limitations while redecorating your office” and instructed him to turn over files on decoration work and Foster’s demotion.

Foster alleged to a whistleblower-protection watchdog that she lost her job as Hud’s chief administrative last year partly as retaliation for her refusal to exceed a $5,000 legal cap for spending on Carson’s office.

She said she was told by Craig Clemmensen, who was Hud’s acting director while Carson went through the Senate confirmation process, to find more money for use by Carson’s wife, Candy, and that “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair”.

Following Foster’s reassignment, the department spent $31,000 on a dining table and accompanying items for Carson’s suite, the New York Times reported. The findings came after Donald Trump proposed billions of dollars in cuts to Hud’s budget, reducing programs for poor and homeless people.

A spokesman for Hud, Raffi Williams, claimed that the $5,000 limit did not apply because the table served a “building-wide need”. Williams had previously falsely denied the existence of the table purchase when asked about it by the Guardian.

Carson’s department also signed a contract last year to spend $165,000 on “lounge furniture” for its Washington headquarters from the retailer OFS Brands of Huntingburg, Indiana, according to federal procurement records.

An inventory provided by the department said that the order comprised 38 lounge sofas and 76 lounge chairs. It said 30 of the items were taken from OFS’s “Realm” range, which the company describes as “glamorous, with a beau mondes presence”.

OFS
A housing department inventory said 30 items were chosen from the ‘Realm’ range at the retailer OFS Brands. Photograph: PR

Democrats and campaigners from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew) earlier on Wednesday urged Hud’s inspector general, Helen Albert, to investigate the allegations made by Foster.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the senior Democrat on the Senate’s banking committee, said Albert should expand an inquiry that he and colleagues asked for this month after reports on Carson’s involvement of his family members in government affairs.

“Ranking member Brown believes this should be looked into as part of the comprehensive IG investigation he and other members of the banking committee have already requested,” Ashley Lewis, a spokeswoman for the committee’s Democrats, said in an email.

Echoing Brown’s request, Crew said in a letter to Albert that the Guardian’s reporting had highlighted “new examples of the potentially undue influence” of Candy Carson at Hud and “further evidence of Secretary Carson’s apparent disregard for governing rules”.

Noah Bookbinder, Crew’s executive director, also cited a separate allegation made by Foster that she was blocked by Hud’s in-house lawyers from handling politically sensitive Freedom of Information Act (Foia) requests that Hud received, apparently because she was perceived to be a Democrat.

“If true, the actions of Hud’s office of general counsel may have been an inappropriate attempt to assert political pressure to affect the processing of a Foia request seeking information that may have placed the agency and high-level agency officials in a negative light,” Bookbinder wrote.

The inspector general’s office declined to discuss the requests. Darryl Madden, a spokesman, said in an email: “As a matter of policy, the office of the inspector general neither confirms nor denies any investigative actions that may or may not be underway.”

Tricia Enright, a spokeswoman for the Democratic senator Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat on the banking committee’s housing subcommittee, said the department’s spending was unlike what she experienced while working there for the Hud secretaries Henry Cisneros and Andrew Cuomo during the 1990s.

“I don’t recall either one of them demanding the office be redecorated,” said Enright. “The best you could do was ask for furniture changes from the inventory in storage.”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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