When he was nominated as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson promised that his tenure would be marked by efficiency, both inside the organization and in the programs it supervises. Instead, like his colleagues Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, and Steven Mnuchin, he finds himself under scrutiny for extravagant spending habits—in this case, on $31,500 in custom hardwood furniture.
Carson was once so focused on “waste” that he seemed nonchalant about the Trump administration’s proposal to cut 14 percent of the HUD budget, which experts said would have done serious harm to the millions of Americans who rely on federal housing assistance. “It doesn’t matter what the final budget is,” Carson told WHYY reporter and Slate contributor Jake Blumgart in September. “We are looking at how we spend the money efficiently. How do we protect the taxpayers and get the maximum bang for the buck? If we get $10, we will spend it extremely well. If we get $10 trillion, we will spend it extremely well.”
But when it came to spending just $5,000 on a table and chairs for the secretary’s office, the budget restrictions suddenly did matter. According to a complaint filed in November and reported by the Guardian on Tuesday, career HUD official Helen Foster was pressured to circumvent a $5,000 spending limit for redecorating department head offices. Foster alleges that prior to Carson’s confirmation, acting HUD director Craig Clemmensen (on behalf of Candy Carson, the secretary’s wife) told her, “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair” and that getting around the spending limit—which requires congressional approval to exceed—had always been managed in the past.
In the fall, the department finally bought a decent chair, and then some. The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that HUD had spent $31,561 on a “custom hardwood table, chairs and hutch” inside the secretary’s 10th-floor office. A HUD spokesperson told the paper the expense did not violate the $5,000 limit because the table and chairs served “a building-wide need.” The department did not ask for congressional approval.
Meanwhile, in a separate report, the Guardian noted that HUD had signed a contract in September to spend $165,000 on “lounge furniture” for the department. The British paper also reported that HUD spokesman Raffi Williams, a veteran of Sean Spicer’s team at the RNC, had lied about the table expenditure, insisting that the only public money spent on the secretary’s office consisted of $3,200 in new blinds.* Williams told the Times that the Carsons had not asked for a new table; the secretary had only commented on the current table’s scratches.
There was a time that a pockmarked desk was a sign of use, but this administration is apparently hard at work on a clean-desk aesthetic.
Correction, Feb. 28, 2018: This post originally misspelled Raffi Williams’ first name. The post also misstated the furniture expenditure as $35,000.