Newly released emails seem to contradict HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson’s claim that neither he nor his wife had any knowledge of the cost of office furniture ordered for the Department’s executive dining room. The total cost of the furniture was reportedly more than $31,000. The order had been cancelled after the cost was made public.
A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development initially denied that the Carson’s were involved in the choice of the set. “Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased,” Raffi Williams told CNN last month.
Another HUD spokesman gave a similar statement. “The secretary did not order a new table. The table was ordered by the career staffers in charge of the building,” he said.
But emails released through a Freedom of Information Act request challenge those statements. The FOIA request was made by a liberal watchdog group called American Oversight, which is led by former Obama administration officials. The emails show that that replacing of the dining room set, along with the costs involved, was discussed with top members of Carson’s staff, and that Carson’s wife, Candy, was invited to participate in its selection.
The discussions apparently began when aides to Dr. Carson complained about the state of disrepair of the furniture last August. “Could you all get the dining room chairs tighten up?” one of them wrote. “Most of them are loose and wiggling.”
The other called the furniture “fairly precarious” and wrote that she wanted to “avoid someone having an accident (and embarrassment!) should [one of the chairs] collapse beneath them.” Photographs released by HUD corroborate those claims. The initial estimate for repairing the furniture was $1,100.
Several months later the Carson’s were reportedly told that there was a $25,000 budget for redecorating the office that had to be used by a certain time or it would be lost. A quote for a new furniture set came in at $24,666. A staffer at HUD sent the quote to high-ranking members of Dr. Carson’s team, including his chief of staff, saying that she believed it was a “very reasonable price” and that the funds “were 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 staffer added.
Four months later, HUD approved the purchase but the priced had increased by about $7,000 in that time, because of delivery and installation charges, as well as small price increases to some of the pieces.
In responding to the new information HUD spokesman Raffi Williams would only say, “When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles.”
Dr. Carson, earlier this month, said that he “was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered,” adding that had “requested that the order be canceled. We will find another solution for the furniture replacement,” he said.
“I made it known that I was not happy about the prices being charged and that my preference would be to find something more reasonable,” he added.
The Trump administration has faced criticism for its use excessive use of taxpayer funds. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was forced to resign last year after it was learned he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on private air travel, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin is facing scrutiny for having his wife accompany him on an official trip to Europe last year at the taxpayer’s expense.