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Ben And Candy Carson Attempted To Misuse Taxpayer Funds For An Opulent Office Redecoration

Published March 15, 2018; Last Updated: March 27, 2018

Ben and Candy Carson. Photograph: Reuters

Relevant Regulations

Federal law requires the approval of the Appropriations Committees of both the House and the Senate for a renovation or redecoration of the office of a department or agency head that costs more than $5,000:

"During the period in which the head of any department .... appointed by the President of the United States, holds office, no funds may be obligated or expended in excess of $5,000 to renovate, remodel, furnish, or redecorate the office of such department head, ... or to purchase furniture or make improvements for any such office, unless such renovation, remodeling, furnishing, or redecoration is expressly approved by the Committees on Appropriations of the House and the Senate."

HUD Spends $31,561 on a Dining Room Set For Secretary Ben Carson, Without Congressional Assent

On February 27, 2018 The New York Times reported that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HuD) had spent $31,561 on a new dining room set for Ben Carson's office in late 2017. 

You can view the items ordered and their individual costs here.

On the day this story broke, the dining set had not yet been delivered to HuD.

According to the reporting from the Times, HuD spokesman Raffi Williams claimed that Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased" and added that Carson did not believe the table was too expensive and did not plan to cancel the order. 

Williams also told the Times that neither Carson nor his wife Candy requested that the existing dining table be replaced.

HuD also placed the order for the table without seeking the approval of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, in possible violation of the above mentioned federal law requiring congressional assent for purchases over $5,000.

The Times reported that HuD spokesman Williams said congressional approval was not sought by HuD officials because the dining set served a "building-wide need," despite the fact that the set was to be placed in Carson's office suite.

Candy Carson's Alleged Involvement 

 

Also on February 27, The Guardian reported that Candy Carson sought funds for the redecoration of her husband's office before Ben Carson was even confirmed by the Senate to the position of HuD Secretary.

According to The Guardian, Helen Foster, who was a senior official at HuD, alleged that on January 19, 2017 acting HUD director Craig Clemmenson asked her to help Candy find funds for a redecoration of Ben Carson's office.


She alleges that when she told Clemmenson the law places restrictions on purchases over $5,000, he told her "administrations had found ways around that in the past."

Headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington D.C. Photograph: Corruption Watch. 

The Guardian further reported that after Foster refused to comply with the request, Clemmenson repeatedly told her "to 'find money' for Mrs Carson" and that "$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair." 

Then, roughly a month before the table was ordered, Foster filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging that she had been demoted and replaced with a Trump administration appointee for objecting to Candy Carson's efforts to get around the legal restrictions on spending more than $5,000 on office redecorations without congressional assent. 

 

The allegations that Candy Carson was involved in pushing for the expensive redecoration contradict HuD spokesman Raffi Williams' claim that Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased."

Williams Had Previously Falsely Denied That The Table Had Been Purchased

The Guardian has also reported that, on February 23, before the story of the dining set purchase was reported, HuD spokesman Raffi Williams denied that HuD had purchased a $31,561 dining set for Ben Carson's office. 

The Guardian asked Williams to confirm the claims of a source who informed them of the purchase. Williams replied "Yeah, that's inaccurate."

After the story became public, The Guardian asked Williams to explain his false statement. Williams replied by falsely telling them he had only been asked about spending from what he called the "decoration budget" before stating that he had another incoming phone call and ending the interview.

Congress Launches An Investigation

On February 28, 2018, the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation into whether HuD broke the law in purchasing the dining set without congressional approval and Helen Foster's allegations that she was punished her for refusal to approve the purchase.

The Carsons Deny Wrongdoing

On the evening of February 28, 2018, the Carsons tweeted out the following message from their joint twitter account denying wrong-doing:

HuD Announces It Will Try To Cancel Its Order

On March 1, 2018, CNN reported that, amid the fallout from the revelations, HuD was attempting to cancel its order for the dining set.

In a statement, also put out on March 1, Ben Carson claimed he was "as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered."

A HuD Official Accuses Ben Carson Of Conducting a "Witch-Hunt"

On March 6, 2018, a senior official at HuD, Marcus Smallwood, wrote an email to Ben Carson which stated that the HuD Secretary was conducting a "witch-hunt" against HuD civil servants who engaged in whistle-blowing. 

The email stated, "A week has gone by and it is now very clear that Helen Foster was not lying about the furniture purchases.”

Smallwood stated that Carson's "witch-hunt" created a culture of fear among HuD civil servants.

Ben Carson Contradicts The Official Narrative In A Facebook Post

As stated above, on the day the Times broke the story about the $31,561 dining set HuD spokesman Raffi Williams claimed that Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased" but added that Carson did not believe the table was too expensive and did not plan to cancel the order.

But in a Facebook post on March 5, 2018, Ben Carson states, "I briefly looked at catalogs for dining furniture and was shocked by the cost of the furniture. My wife asked if used furniture was an option. Our acquisition process did not allow for that."

"I made it clear that I was not happy about the prices being charged and that my preference would be to find something more reasonable. I left this matter alone to concentrate on much bigger issues. I was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered. I have requested that the order be canceled. We will find another solution for the furniture replacement."

So in the first instance, the HuD spokesman stated that Carson did not view the $31,561 table as too expensive. 

But in Carson's later Facebook post, he paints an image of himself fretting about the cost of furniture ("[I] was shocked by the cost of the furniture"), so much so that he inquired about whether used furniture was an option.

The contrast is stark between Carson's claim that he was seeking so desperately to be a good steward of taxpayer money that he was willing to consider used furniture and on the other hand the HuD spokesman stating that Carson had no problem with the department ultimately purchasing a $31,561 table. 

Moreover, Carson's Facebook post concedes that both Ben and Candy Carson were actively involved in choosing a new dining set: "I briefly looked at catalogs for dining furniture...." and "My wife also looked at the catalogs and wanted to be sure that the color of the chair fabric of any set that was chosen matched the rest of the decour."

Yet Raffi Williams statement that Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased" makes no mention at all the the Carsons were involved in anyway in selecting a new dining set and seems to imply that HuD staffers somehow went rouge and purchased the table without any prior heads-up to Carson.  

The Facebook post also presents a third issue. In the post, Carson admits that he was looking into options for purchasing a new dining table and claims that, flustered by exorbitant prices, he abandoned his efforts and left it to others to find a suitable option: "I briefly looked at catalogs for dining furniture and was shocked by the cost of the furniture.........I made it clear that I was not happy about the prices being charged and that my preference would be to find something more reasonable. I left this matter alone to concentrate on much bigger issues."

There are only two possible explanations for how the department went from its head expressing a "preference .... to find something more reasonable" to purchasing a $31,561 dining set: either Ben Carson's staff ran amuck with the taxpayer credit card without running the planned purchase by him, which would indicate incompetence on the part of Ben Carson as a department head, or this facebook account of what happened is false. 

Emails Reveal Ben And Candy Carson Handpicked the Dining Set

On March 14, 2018, CNN reported that watchdog group American Oversight had obtained internal HuD emails by filing a Freedom of Information Act Request. 

The emails revealed that the Carsons had personally selected the $31,561 dining set. 

An email dated August 8, 2017 from a HuD staffer to Candy Carson asks if Candy would like to come in to meet with a designer on either the 15th, 16th, or 17th of August. 

Another email between two HuD staffers sent on the morning of August 29, 2017 refers to "the furniture Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out."

The contents of these emails thus contradict HuD spokesman Raffi Williams' claims to The New York Times that Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased" and that neither Carson nor his wife Candy requested that the existing dining table be replaced.

They also contradict Ben Carson's March 5, 2018 Facebook post in which he states, "I was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered."

CNN asked Raffi Williams about the contradiction between the content of the emails and a statement he made to them in February in which he said "Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased." 

 

He replied, "When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles."

But of course, this is not a defense of his earlier claims that the Carsons were not involved in the purchase of the dining set, but rather, an admission that they were. 

My Wife Did It

On March 20, 2018, Ben Carson appeared on Capital Hill for a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transport, Housing, and Urban Development.

The hearing was scheduled to discuss the fiscal year 2019 budget for HuD, but because it came in the wake of the revelations about the purchase of the $31,561 dining set, Representatives on the subcommittee also asked questions about the scandal.

Carson tells the committee he left a decision about how to spend taxpayer money to his wife, who holds no position in government.

In attempting to extricate himself from the affair, Carson told the committee "I asked my wife also to help me with [replacing the existing dining table] ..... I left it with my wife. I said, you know, help choose something ....... I really wasn't that concerned about furniture."

Here Carson is readily admitting that he asked his wife, who holds no position in government, to make a decision about how taxpayer money should be spent.

 

This ceding of an (albeit very small) portion of the HuD Secretary's authority to an unelected and unappointed family member constitutes nepotism, and therefore amounts to political corruption in and of itself. 

Carson later stated "There were reports that you know, I said that I had no involvement. I always said what my involvement was in it." 

But as mentioned above, there were numerous contradictions in the various statements made by the Carson and HuD spokesman Raffi Williams after news of the purchase went public.

 

There was the contradiction between Carson's Facebook post in which he claimed he was "as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered" and internal HuD emails discussing the "the furniture Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.

 

There was also the issue of HuD spokesman Raffi Williams initially telling the Times' that Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased" despite the existence of internal HuD emails discussing the "the furniture Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.

And Williams himself repeatedly changed his claims, first telling the Guardian that no such dining set had been purchased, then stating that Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased," and then later stating "When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles." 

The exchange between Sec. Carson and Rep. Price

Later in the hearing Ranking Member of the committee David Price pushed back saying "There appears to be some contradiction in the record about your statements to the press indicating early on that you had no knowledge of this purchase. This is not what you've said today." 

Carson replied saying "I never said that to the press."  

 

It's true that Carson didn't say early on that he had no knowledge of this purchase; but HuD's spokesman sure did: the Times' orginial reporting that broke this story states that Raffi Williams told them Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased."

 

And Carson later said on Facebook that "I was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered."

Price followed up by citing a CNN report that stated HuD spokesman Raffi Williams "initially denied the Carson's had any involvement in the dining set selection. Mrs. Carson and the Secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased, he told CNN last month."

 

He then stated "a few days later you [Ben Carson] personally addressed the issue saying you were surprised by the price tag, was having the order canceled. And there were other reports having to do with some ambiguity about your taking responsibility."

Carson interjected saying "I would respectfully say that I can tell you what I said, I can tell you what I did, I do not intend to be responsible for what anybody else said."

Here he appears to be throwing Raffi Williams under the bus, stating that he does not intend to be responsible for what anybody else said.

But of course the head of HuD is responsible for ensuring that HuD's spokespersons - Carson's employees - don't put out false or misleading statements. So if Carson feels Williams repeatedly put out inaccurate statements to the media, Carson should react by firing Williams. Yet he has failed to do so.

Moreover, if Carson felt that the HuD spokesman put out inaccurate statements, he should have issued a correction, either himself or through a different staffer. He did not.

And even if we leave the matter of Williams' false statements aside, there are still the inconsistencies in Carson's own statements mentioned above. 

Price followed up asking "And there's no problem with a much cited Facebook post either?" referring to the above mentioned March 5, 2018 that was riddled with contradictions.

Carson replied "The Facebook post is quite accurate."

We've discussed the issues with the Facebook post at length above. 

Price then asked about the legal requirement to seek Congressional assent for a redecoration of the office of a department head that costs more than $5,000.

 

Price stated "Then there is the matter of failing to notify Congress about the purchase. That, as you know is required by law. This was only a notification requirement. Yet your office was aware of it at the highest levels apparently, according to some internal email traffic that we've seen. You didn't do that."

Carson replied "It's my understanding that the facilities people felt that the dining room table was actually dangerous and it was a facilities issue, not a decorating issue....I don't think there is a notification requirement for facilities issues as there is with decorating issues."

When Price replied that internal staff emails showed that there was awareness that there is indeed a reporting requirement Carson replied "It was never discussed with me."

Here Carson is essentially saying that his employees failed to do their job appropriately. Yet no disciplinary action has been taken against a single staff member.

The exchange between Sec. Carson and Rep. Quigley.

Later in the hearing Rep. Quigley asked Carson about contradictions between the contents of the internal emails and what Carson was telling Members of Congress in this hearing.

Carson replied "Everything that I have told you right now is the truth."

The exchange between Sec. Carson and Rep. Clark.

Asked again later by Rep. Clark "Is it your testimony that you knew nothing" about the requirement to seek Congressional assent for a redecoration of the office of a department head that costs more than $5,000 despite discussion of this requirement in internal staff emails, Carson replied "No one discussed that with me."

Again, if it is true that HuD employees failed to notify Carson that his purchase may break the law, one would expect disciplinary action to be taken. Yet Carson has refrained from doing so.

Asked by Clark to confirm that the furniture was selected by his wife, Carson replied "a style and a color was selected by her with the caveat that we were not happy with the pricing.”

So, once again, Carson is readily admitting that he asked his wife, who holds no position in government, to make a decision about how taxpayer money should be spent.

"I Take Responsibility"

Two days later, Carson appeared for a hearing at the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.

Senator Bob Menendez asked Carson "[W]hy did you mislead the American public, the taxpayers that fund the department's activities and tell them that you were not aware of this purchase when it is indisputable that you and your wife were involved in selecting this particular furniture set?" 

Carson: "Well it's not indisputable. I wrote in the post on the 5th what my involvement was. It says there very clearly what the involvement was."

Menendez: "So all those emails of your staff were wrong? Your spokesperson was wrong? I mean its unbelievable."

Carson: "All what emails? Tell me what the emails said."

Menendez: "The emails go back to August of 2017, staff of the Department refer to the furniture set that "the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out." Did they make that up?"

Carson: "No but I indicated that in the posting that we were involved because they asked us to be involved to pick something and that I thought the pricing was too high. But here's the bottom line. The bottom line is that the furniture is not at HuD and there is no charge to the American people, to the taxpayer."

Menendez: "But only cause the issues were raised Mr. Secretary."

So again, when faced with questions over the contradictions between his statements and the contents of internal emails, Carson again referred to the flawed Facebook post.

And he failed to address at all the issue of multiple false statements put out by HuD spokesperson Raffi Williams. 

Later in the hearing Carson said "Even though I wasn't aware of the $5,000 requirement, I still take responsibility for it as head of the agency and I take responsibility for fixing it. And we have done that."

Timeline

December 5, 2016: President-elect Trump nominates Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development

January 19, 2017: Acting HuD director Craig Clemmenson allegedly asked senior HuD official Helen Foster to help Candy Carson find funds for a redecoration of Ben Carson's office and allegedly stated that "administrations had found ways around [legal restrictions on spending over $5,000] in the past."

February 2017: After she refused to comply with request, Clemmenson is alleged to have repeatedly told Foster "to 'find money' for Mrs Carson" and that "$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair." 

March 2, 2017: The senate confirms Carson's nomination as head of HuD.

August 8, 2017A HuD staffer emails Candy Carson to ask if she would like to come in to meet with a designer on either the 15th, 16th, or 17th of August.

August 29, 2017Two HuD staffers discuss "the furniture Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out" in an email.

Roughly one month before the table was purchased: Foster files a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging that she had been demoted and replaced with a Trump administration appointee for objecting to HuD's efforts to get around the legal restrictions on spending more than $5,000 on office redecorations without congressional assent. 

Late 2017: HuD spends $31,561 on a new dining room set for Ben Carson's office

February 23, 2018: Before the story gets out to the public, HuD spokesman Raffi Williams tells The Guardian that HuD did not purchase a $31,561 dining set for Ben Carson's office. 

February 27, 2018: The New York Times breaks the story about the $31,561 dining set.

February 27, 2018: The Times reports HuD spokesman Williams told them that neither Carson nor his wife Candy asked for the new dining set and that Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased."

February 27, 2018: The Guardian reports pressure was placed on Helen Foster to find funds for Candy's desired redecoration.

February 27, 2018: The Guardian asks Williams to explain his false statement on February 23. Williams falsely tells them he had only been asked about spending from what he called the "decoration budget" before stating that he had another incoming phone call and ending the interview.

February 28, 2018: The House Oversight Committee inquires about the purchase of the dining set.

February 28, 2018: The Carsons tweet out a message from their joint twitter account denying wrong-doing.

February, 2018: HuD Spokesman Raffi Williams tells CNN "Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased."

March 1, 2018CNN reports that amid the fallout from the revelations, HuD was attempting to cancel its order for the dining set.

March 1, 2018: Ben Carson claims he was "as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered." 

March 5, 2018: Ben Carson puts out a Facebook statement that appears to contradict the HuD spokesmen's initial depiction of what happened. 

March 6, 2018: Marcus Smallwood, a senior HuD official, states that Ben Carson has been conducting a "witch-hunt" against civil servants and that it was clear Helen Foster was not lying about her accusations against Ben and Candy Carson. 

March 14, 2018: A watchdog group obtains an internal HuD email dated August 29, 2017 which shows two HuD staffers discussing the "the furniture Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out."

This contradicts William's earlier claim that neither Carson nor his wife Candy asked for the new dining set and that Ben Carson "didn't know the table had been purchased."

It also contradicts Ben Carson's earlier claim that he was "as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered." 

March 14, 2018HuD Spokesman Raffi Williams tells CNN "When presented with options by professional staff, Mrs. Carson participated in the selection of specific styles," contradicting his earlier claim that "Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness that the table was being purchased."

March 20, 2018: Carson admits to allowing his wife, who holds no position in government, to be involved in a decision about how taxpayer money allocated to HuD is spent.

March 22, 2018: Carson tells Members of Congress "I take responsibility."

Analysis

Between the statements of HuD whistleblower Helen Foster, the inconsistencies of the statements made by the Carsons and HuD spokesman Raffi Williams after news of the purchase went public, and the release of internal HuD emails discussing the "the furniture Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out," it is apparent that the Carsons attempted to misuse taxpayer money to finance a lavish refurbishing of Ben Carson's office and then lied about doing so. This constitutes a misuse of public office for personal gain and therefore amounts to political corruption

Moreover, Carson has readily admitted on multiple occasions that he brought in his wife, who holds no position in government, to provide input into a decision about how taxpayer money should be spent. This ceding of a (small) portion of the HuD Secretary's authority to an unelected and unappointed family member constitutes nepotism, and therefore constitutes political corruption in and of itself. 

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Ben Carson ran as a "fiscal conservative" who claimed he would reduce the fiscal deficits of the federal government.

And his plan for doing so specifically included reducing waste at federal departments such as HuD. 

 

In one interview Ben Carson said that he would balance the federal government's budget by not replacing retiring government employees and "No. 2: Take every departmental head, or sub-department head and tell them, "I want a 3 to 4 percent reduction." Now anybody who tells me there's not 3 to 4 percent fat in virtually everything that we do is fibbing to themselves." 

 

But when he was given a chance to do just that as the head of one of those departments, he and his wife appear to have actively attempted to waste taxpayer money on an extravagant office refurbishment. Indeed it seems they were so determined to waste taxpayer dollars that they may have actively sought to find ways around a legal restriction on department heads spending more than $5,000 on office redecorations without congressional assent.

 

So as it turns out, when Carson claimed to be a fiscally responsible presidential candidate, he was just "fibbing."