Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from liberal watchdog group American Oversight reveal more details about HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s involvement in the purchase of a $31,000 dining room set. Earlier reports indicated that Carson and wife Candy did not participate in the selection process, but messages sent directly to the secretary’s office say otherwise.
HUD spokesman Raffi Williams told CNN in February that the secretary and his wife “had no awareness” that the new dining table was being purchased. Another HUD spokesman blamed a still-unidentified career staffer for making the buy, which far exceeded the budget designated for redecorating Carson’s office.
However, an email sent back in August to Carson’s assistant referenced the need for the new dining room set and “printouts of the furniture the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.” The communications directly contradicted statements that Williams and Carson made when the story first broke. Carson said that he was “surprised” at the hefty price tag. As promised, Carson canceled the order on March 1.
Controversy erupted over the pricey transaction when Helen Foster was demoted. The senior career HUD official reportedly refused to approve the Carsons’ spending, which far exceeded the $5,000 limit set by federal law. Politico reported that Marcus Smallwood, who serves as HUD’s director of records and information management, accused Secretary Carson of starting a “smear campaign” against Foster to cover his tracks.
On Tuesday, Smallwood sent an email to Carson along with other HUD officials in defense of Foster’s refusal to become an accessory to their crimes. He said that challenging their spending decisions and asking “the tough questions” was part of her job.
Foster has since filed a formal grievance with the office of special counsel. She alleges that senior HUD officials insisted that she “find money” to fund the redecoration efforts in Carson’s office. HUD has, in turn, responded that Foster was demoted for exhibiting problematic behavior. According to Williams, Foster is still employed by HUD and has been reassigned to the Department of Treasury per her request. She is expected to return to the department once her assignment at the treasury is complete.
On the Carsons shared Facebook page, they posted their explanation of events, citing that he expressed disapproval of the furniture pricing, asked that something comparable but more affordable be ordered, and left the actual purchase up to a HUD staffer. He maintains their innocence.