Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson may have moved to cancel the order for a $31,000 custom hardwood dining set that was to be installed in his office, but two of the top Democrats in the Senate want an investigation into the entire affair.
Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, sent a letter to the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Housing and Urban Development this week, asking the watchdog to open an investigation into how the dining set was ordered in the first place and whether any violations of ethics rules or law occurred in the process.
Brown and Menendez both serve on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, where Brown is the ranking member.
The dining set issue blew up over the last several weeks after reports surfaced that HUD planned to spend $31,000 on a dining table set that would be placed in Carson’s office.
One of the main issues was that HUD officials supposedly did not seek approval from the House or Senate Appropriations Committees for the purchase, despite federal law requiring congressional approval to furnish or redecorate the office of a department head if the cost of the improvements are more than $5,000.
Additionally, Helen Foster, a former HUD staffer, said that she was demoted from her position of chief administrative officer for refusing to aid in using HUD money to buy the table in question.
In the letter, Brown and Menendez say that they have “serious concerns” about the reports of the dining set and the treatment of Foster.
“We write to express our serious concerns regarding recent reports of expenditures made for the office suite of Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, as well as allegations that HUD officials retaliated against an employee for refusing to engage in suspected illegal activity,” Brown and Menendez write.
“We therefore request that the Office of the Inspector General promptly open an investigation into the circumstances involving the expenditures for any furniture for the Secretary’s suite, as well as if there were any violations in the use of taxpayer funds for such purchases,” they continue. “Although press reports indicate that HUD canceled the furniture purchase, it is important to understand whether any legal or ethical violations occurred in this process.”
Brown and Menendez note that Foster filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, in which she accused HUD management of taking “retaliatory personnel actions” against her for raising concerns about the dining set purchase as well as a $10.8 million budget shortfall she identified.
“This remarkable expenditure request for a custom and extravagantly expensive hardwood table, chairs, and hutch comes on the heels of the Administration’s proposal to slash funding for the Department’s budget by $6.8 billion, a 14 percent decrease from fiscal year 2017 enacted funding levels,” Brown and Menendez write.
Brown and Menendez close by urging HUD-OIG to investigate the “potential illicit activity” surrounding HUD’s spending.
“We should accept nothing less than a full and transparent explanation of what happened, whether any violations of ethics rules or law occurred, who is responsible for any violations, and how to prevent such violations in the future,” Brown and Menendez write.
“If true, this is exactly the type of behavior that undermines Americans’ trust that their government will be an effective steward of their taxpayer dollars,” they continue.
“Whistleblowers and federal government employees who expose waste, fraud, and abuse by public officials should be applauded, not retaliated against,” Brown and Menendez conclude. “We therefore respectfully request that the Office of the Inspector General promptly open an investigation into the allegations involving potential illicit activity regarding HUD official expenses.”