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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spent a whopping $31,561 on a new dining set that will grace the executive dining room of Secretary Ben Carson.
HUD disclosed that eye-popping purchase to CNBC on Tuesday when asked about a former top official’s complaint that she was demoted last summer. The former official said the demotion came after she pushed back on an effort to help Carson’s wife redecorate his office at a cost above a $5,000 legal cap.
HUD – whose responsibilities include providing affordable housing to more than 4.3 million low-income families – said the only items purchased for Carson’s office were window blinds, which cost about $3,400.
That is well below the statutory maximum allowed to be spent on renovations for the secretary’s office.
“Secretary Carson, to our knowledge, is the only HUD Secretary to go to the subbasement of his agency to select the furniture for his office,” a HUD spokesman said.
“All the furniture in his office was purchased by the government prior to his arrival,” the spokesman said.
Carson played no role in ordering the dining room set, and was unaware of it until this week, according to HUD.
The New York Times reports that the set includes a “custom hardwood table, chairs and hutch.”
The spokesman declined to comment on allegations in the complaint by former chief administrative officer Helen Foster that she was repeatedly told in early 2017 to “find money” for Carson’s wife to purchase furniture for his office as he prepared to take over the agency.
Acting HUD Secretary Craig Clemmensen in January 2017 allegedly told Foster that the “Administration has always found money for this in the past,” and that “$5000 will not even buy a decent chair,” according to Foster’s complaint, filed in November by her lawyer Joseph Kaplan.
Kaplan, in a letter to HUD’s complaints unit, said Foster “was viewed as a thorn in management’s side” because of her pushback on the office renovations, as well as for several other issues.
Foster, Kaplan said, also had disclosed more than $10 million in budget shortfalls caused by “the mismanagement of her predecessor” during the Barack Obama administration and wanted those shortfalls disclosed to the staff of congressional appropriations committees.
She also had objected to processing Freedom of Information Act requests made by the Democratic National Committee “outside of the normal FOIA process,” Kaplan’s letter said.
After raising these issues, the lawyer said, Foster was reassigned to be HUD’s chief privacy and FOIA officer, a position that reports to an official that was once her subordinate.
“This is a long-time public servant who did well at her job, and now her reputation has been ruined,” Kaplan said.
According to HUD, the rotation of Foster out of her prior job to a new post is not unusual, since government guidelines encourage such transfers within agencies.
HUD said the old furniture in the official agency dining room, which is near Carson’s office, had been in service since 1967. The dining room is used for hosting visiting dignitaries and other events.
After the old dining set was deemed unrepairable, a new set was ordered by career staffers in charge of the operations of HUD’s headquarters building, the agency said.
The dining room set, which will seat about 10 people comfortably, was ordered on Dec. 21 from a Baltimore, Maryland, company, Sebree and Associates, records show. HUD will pay $31,561 for the set, according to records.
The owner of Sebree and Associates, Evelyn Sebree, immediately referred questions to HUD when contacted by CNBC, without a reporter telling her what the call was about.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the furniture purchased for $31,561 is a dining room set rather than a dining room table.