Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was cleared by HUD's independent watchdog for the order for the controversial order of a $31,000 custom hardwood dining set that was to be installed in his office.
The dining set issue blew up back in 2018 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.
After the situation surfaced, Carson requested that the order be canceled.
And now, the HUD Office of Inspector General is exonerating Carson from any wrongdoing in the affair.
“We did not find sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of misconduct on the part of Secretary Carson in connection with this procurement,” the HUD OIG said in its report.
From the HUD OIG report:
We found that this procurement initially went forward because career officials with responsibility for maintaining and purchasing departmental property determined 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. These officials also informed the Office of the Secretary that the Department had funds available to replace the furniture. The evidence shows that departmental officials involved in decision-making about this procurement were aware of the law prohibiting furniture purchases in excess of $5,000 without advance notice to Congress, but either failed to consider or did not understand that this law applies to (1) the replacement of damaged or unusable furniture and (2) any purchase of furniture to be used in areas under the Secretary’s control, not just furniture to be used in his immediate office.
The HUD report shows that Carson did not push for buying new office furniture, and in fact seemed to not care how his office was decorated.
“As for Secretary Carson’s role in the dining-room-furniture procurement, the evidence shows that he indicated he was ‘fine’ with replacing the furniture upon learning of career officials’ assessment of its condition, but left this matter for members of his staff to handle in consultation with his wife, who provided stylistic input after the Department decided to purchase new furniture,” the report stated.
In fact, Carson told the OIG that he left decisions about the dining room furniture to others, but made it clear to his staff that any available funds should be used to take care of any needs the Deputy Secretary’s office may have first, and that any remaining funds could be used for the dining room furniture.
“Secretary Carson noted that he was focused on much more important aspects of his job responsibilities at the time, and that the procurement of new dining room furniture was not a matter of great concern to him,” the HUD OIG report stated.
Actually, it seems Carson’s wife, Candy, had more of a hand in picking out the furniture than the secretary himself.
Carson said that after quickly glancing through furniture catalogs that had been provided to him, he made a comment about the prices being too high, but them left the rest for his staff and wife to handle together.
“When the OIG asked special assistant who selected this particular furniture, she said that Mrs. Carson ‘guided the conversation’ regarding the furniture selection over the course of several ‘spontaneous’ discussions they had on the subject,” the report stated.
It also explained that Mrs. Carson never came to the office to specifically discuss the furniture purchase, but would talk about it to HUD staff in passing when she was there to see her husband.
The OIG sought to confirm these statements with Mrs. Carson, but she declined requests to be interviewed in connection with this matter.
As for justification for the purchase itself, several members of HUD staff sought to repair the furniture, but described it as old and unable to be repaired. The furniture was thought to be about 30 years old, was unstable and even had nails sticking out. Multiple attempts had been made to revitalize the furniture, but experts feared that it had been repair too many times, and would not withstand further repair.
From the report:
OFMS Supervisor told the OIG that, after personally viewing the dining room furniture, it was absolutely clear to her that the furniture was no longer serviceable and should be replaced, which she informed OFMS leadership officials. OFMS Supervisor stated several times during her interview that “[i]t was [her] decision to replace the furniture,” said she believed that this was the “correct” decision based on her years of professional experience, and explained that she reached this decision independently by applying “fair wear and tear” or “life expectancy” standards used in her profession. OFMS Supervisor said she did not hear anything indicating that Secretary Carson wanted the furniture replaced. OFMS Supervisor reiterated that her decision that the furniture should be replaced was not influenced by anything other than her own professional judgement.