Secretary's wife "guided the conversation" on $31,000 order, but did not improperly influence career officials.
Federal investigators have cleared Ben Carson of any wrongdoing related to excessive spending for new furniture to redecorate his office, according to a new report, though they did find his department violated spending law.
The Housing and Urban Development Department secretary did not exert “improper influence” on any HUD employee, the agency’s inspector general said in its findings. Carson had come under fire after his office attempted to buy $31,000 worth of new furniture. The department subsequently canceled the order before actually spending the money.
The IG confirmed Carson’s wife, Candy, provided “stylistic input” and “guided the conversation” on the furniture purchases, as the secretary conceded after internal emails documented her involvement. HUD previously said only career employees were involved in placing the orders. While the secretary’s wife was involved, the IG said, she did not exercise any undue influence.
“We found no evidence indicating that either Secretary or Mrs. Carson exerted improper influence on any departmental employee in connection with the procurement,” the investigators said in their report.
The IG confirmed that career employees responsible for maintaining HUD property initiated the procurement after determining “that the existing dining room furniture set in the secretarial suite was in poor condition, that it could not be repaired, and that it should be replaced.” Investigators also said, however, that Sheila Greenwood, a political appointee helping to prepare for Carson’s arrival at HUD, pushed for a furniture upgrade and called the existing chairs and tables “an embarrassment.”
Officials first attempted to repair the existing furniture, but ultimately determined it was beyond fixing and had to be replaced. Candy Carson “guided the conversation” on which specific pieces of furniture HUD would purchase, employees told the IG. Candy declined to speak to the investigators, and the IG ultimately let both Carsons off the hook.
“With regard to Secretary Carson himself, there is insufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of misconduct against him,” the investigators said. Carson was “fine” with replacing the furniture, the IG said, but had little involvement in the procurement process.
The IG faulted HUD for failing to disclose the spending to Congress prior to authorizing it, as required. A 2017 spending bill capped at $5,000 expenditures to “furnish, redecorate, purchase furniture for, or make improvements for the office of a presidential appointee.” The report noted that the Government Accountability Office in May also found HUD violated that law and the Anti-Deficiency Act because of its furniture order and failure to notify Congress.
GAO last year also determined the Environmental Protection Agency violated the same laws because it spent more than $5,000 on furniture for then Administrator Scott Pruitt without notifying Congress.
The IG said it was not making any recommendations because it found “no evidence of misconduct” and HUD was already in the process of addressing the “legal ramifications” of the near-purchase for Carson’s furniture. It had also taken steps to eliminate “future appropriations law violations.” The investigators did suggest, however, that HUD report its Anti-Deficiency Act violations “as the law requires.”
HUD has already established new policies for furniture purchases by presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed appointees and has said it would to establish an orientation program so future appointees have an easier time transitioning into their roles.
"If you have good processes, good education and good understanding, that helps prevent a lot of that," Irving Dennis, HUD’s chief financial officer, said last year of Carson's scandal. "You're always going to have stuff that happens, but you can really mitigate a lot of it with just a good education, and an understanding of policies and procedures."