Political News

Carson Defends Buying $31,000 Dining Set to Congress: ‘I Left It to My Wife’

Posted March 20, 2018 3:56 p.m. EDT
Updated March 20, 2018 3:58 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, told a House committee Tuesday that he had “dismissed” himself from the decision to buy a $31,000 dining room set for his office last year, leaving the details to his wife and staff.

Carson offered a rambling, at times contradictory, explanation of the purchase of the table, chairs and hutch, a transaction that turned into a public relations disaster that led President Donald Trump to consider replacing him, according to White House aides.

The hearing, before the House Appropriations subcommittee that determines the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget, was supposed to center on the administration’s proposed budget cuts to the agency. Instead, it was dominated by questions about Carson’s judgment, the conduct of his wife, Candy Carson, and son Ben Carson Jr., and Carson’s initial denial that he was aware of the expenditure, a position he has modified.

“I was not big into redecorating. If it were up to me, my office would look like a hospital waiting room,” said Carson, who repeatedly told committee members that he had no knowledge of the $5,000 limit imposed on Cabinet secretaries for redecorating their offices — despite the release of emails between top aides discussing how to justify getting around the cap.

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with no prior government experience, said the decision to replace the furniture was made in the interest of safety rather than redecorating.

“People were stuck by nails, and a chair had collapsed with someone sitting in it,” he said, apparently a reference to an email sent by a senior aide last summer who said she was afraid that the old dining set was falling apart and could lead to a mishap.

But for the most part, Carson sought to distance himself from the purchase, saying that he had delegated most of the decision-making to his wife and top aides, including his executive assistant.

“I invited my wife to come and help,” he said. “I left it to my wife, you know, to choose something. I dismissed myself from the issues.” And it was Candy Carson, he said, who “selected the color and style” of the furniture, “with the caveat that we were both not happy about the price.”

But emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request last week seemed to contradict that account. In an Aug. 29, 2017 email, the department’s administrative officer, Aida Rodriguez, wrote that one of her colleagues “has printouts of the furniture the secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.”

American Oversight, a liberal-leaning advocacy group, had requested the emails.

“Setting aside the issue of whether it is appropriate for Secretary Carson to delegate decisions regarding the use of taxpayer funds to his wife, this is now at least the third version of Carson’s story about the furniture,” said Clark Pettig, the group’s communications director.

Democrats on the committee argued that Carson’s timeline suggested that he was simultaneously outraged by the high cost of the set — and ignorant of the price tag.

“I would like to register my frustration with the ethical lapses,” said Rep. David E. Price of North Carolina, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. “It is bad enough. More disturbing are the false public statements, compounded by the roles that the secretary’s family has taken in the department. Public service is a public trust.”

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee this month requested a wide range of internal HUD documents and emails related to the redecoration of the secretary’s 10th-floor office suite at the department headquarters. Carson requested in February that HUD’s inspector general conduct a separate inquiry after reports revealed he had invited his son Ben Jr., an investor, to meetings in Baltimore last summer over the objection of department lawyers who advised him that the invitation could be seen as a conflict of interest.

On Tuesday, Carson defended that decision, saying that his son had not profited from his father’s government post.

“HUD’s ethics counsel suggested it might look funny, but I’m not a person who spends a lot of time thinking about how something looks,” Carson said.