Department of Housing and Urban Development investigators found no evidence that Secretary Ben Carson acted improperly when he tried to buy a $31,000 dining room set for his office in 2017, according to an inspector general’s report released today.
The inspector general determined that Carson and senior department staff members did not follow federal laws that prohibit expenditures of more than $5,000 on office furniture without congressional approval when he signed off on the purchase of a custom table, chairs and hutch to replace a worn-out set.
Investigators placed blame for the episode not on Carson, who told them he “seemed” to have knowledge of the requirement, but on department officials who “were aware of the law” and “either failed to consider or didn’t understand” that it applied to the purchase, according to the 14-page report.
The decision to proceed reflected a historic lack of “adequate internal controls” on purchasing at the department, Rae Oliver Davis, the inspector general, concluded after a yearlong investigation.
As criticism and scrutiny over the order grew, Carson requested that it be canceled.
Carson, speaking in a video interview with his longtime friend and adviser Armstrong Williams that was filmed on Thursday, hailed the report as a vindication. But he defended the attempted purchase, which came as the Trump administration was proposing deep cuts to the department’s programs helping the poor.
“When I heard about it through the news media, I said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘Please cancel it right away,’” Carson said.
“Not that $31,000 is way out of the park for a 17-piece dining room set,” he added.
Carson, who was a pediatric neurosurgeon and author before entering politics, went on to complain that the investigation “cost me personally about $60,000” in legal fees.
“Unfortunately, a lot of my fellow Cabinet members who have been charged with things have also had to hire personal lawyers,” he added, suggesting that such investigations could discourage otherwise qualified Republicans from entering public service.
Carson also said that the department had spent “over $700,000” on the investigation.
Two senior department officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said they did not know where Carson came up with the cost estimate.
A spokesman for the inspector general said his office did not comment on the price or methodology of investigations.
Carson, the report found, was ambivalent about replacing the dining suite, a decades-old set in his sprawling 10th-floor office in the department’s Washington headquarters.
During an interview with investigators, Carson said “it seemed like” he had heard about the $5,000 limit, but added that he had been unsure whether that limit applied to all or just part of his office suite.
Despite Carson’s initial claim that the decision was handled by subordinates, a 163-page cache of emails obtained last year by American Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group, under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the department’s administrative officer had referred to “printouts of the furniture” that Carson and his wife, Candy, had picked out.
Candy Carson, the documents showed, played a central role in coordinating the redecoration of her husband’s office suite — down to scheduling an appointment with an interior decorator and reviewing photo boards of furniture choices.
Still, the inspector general suggested that the couple might have been operating under the assumption that department aides had sorted out the legal issues surrounding the purchase before they got involved.
“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 wrote.
At least one of Carson’s predecessors — Shaun Donovan, who served under President Barack Obama — abandoned the idea of replacing the furniture when told it would exceed the statutory price limit, according to two former agency officials.
Frustrated with the lack of resources, Donovan paid for several pieces of modern furniture out of his own pocket. It remains in storage, and it is not clear why Carson has chosen not to use it.
The inspector general is still investigating the presence of the secretary’s son Ben Carson Jr. at department-sponsored meetings in Baltimore in 2017, an inquiry that could be concluded in the next few weeks, according to agency officials.