The Department of Housing and Urban Development is facing a fresh wave of criticism after reports surfaced the agency approved more than $31,000 on a new office suite dining room set and for allegations brought by a former HUD official claiming she was told by her superiors that "$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair."
According to the New York Times, a "custom hardwood table, chairs and hutch" was purchased a month after a whistleblower complaint was filed alleging Candy Carson, the wife and informal adviser to HUD Secretary Ben Carson, was pushing for elaborate modifications to the drab décor of the department's offices.
The whistleblower was Helen Foster, a career HUD employee. She filed a complaint in November alleging she was demoted and replaced after refusing to exceed the legal $5,000 limit on redecoration. The existence of the complaint was first reported Tuesday by The Guardian.
In a statement, HUD spokesperson Raffi Williams denied Foster's allegations of lavish spending, adding that Carson had different chairs in his office but that they were not new purchases, but rather ones that came from HUD's basement.
"Secretary Carson, to the best of our knowledge, is the only secretary to go to the subbasement at his agency to select the furniture for his office. All the furniture in his office was purchased by the government prior to his arrival," Williams said.
According to the Guardian, Foster was first urged by then acting HUD director Craig Clemmensen in January last year to help Carson's wife get the funding to redecorate Carson's office.
In an interview with CNN Tuesday, Foster said she was pressured and retaliated against for not following through on finding more money. She was also told that past administrations always found the funding.
"I had a bucket in my car because I would throw up on the way to work and on the way home from work every day, just out of anxiety," Foster said.
In an interview with NPR, Foster's Washington-based lawyer Joe Kaplan of the firm Passman & Kaplan said the pressure by HUD officials persisted "for several weeks, certainly into February" of last year.
According to Kaplan, when Foster told Clemmensen that she could not get around the statutory cap of $5,000 for redecorating, Clemmensen told her to that amount could not even purchase a decent chair.
"I've sat in a lot of chairs that have cost less than $5,000 let me tell you," Kaplan said.
Kaplan said his client is seeking compensatory damages and reinstatment as HUD's chief administrative officer. He adds that "a public apology by HUD would go a long way in restoring Helen's reputation."
HUD officials provided receipts that showed HUD spent $3,373 on window treatments, including wooden blinds and another $1,100 on furniture repairs.
In a separate receipt, dated December 21, an item labeled "Secretary's Furniture Procurement" for the amount of $31, 561 was made to the Baltimore-based contractor Sebree and Associates, LLC.
Officials at HUD said the secretary did not purchase the table. That was bought by "career staffers in charge of the building." The old table and chairs from the mid 1960s were "deemed unrepariable." NPR has not confirmed who gave the O.K. for that purchase and has sought clarity from HUD about why the purchase of the new table did not fall under the $5,000 new decor cap.
The complaint over HUD's decoration spending comes as the agency has been embroiled in other controversies in recent weeks. The Trump administration is proposing more than $8 billion in cuts to HUD's budget or more than 14 percent from current levels.
Secretary Carson is also facing allegations that he may have violated ethics rules by allowing his son, Baltimore businessman Ben Carson, Jr., to organize "listening tours" for his father in that city last summer. The secretary has called on HUD's inspector general to review whether there were any violations.
Kaplan, the lawyer for whistleblower Helen Foster, said the Office of Special Counsel could determine if it will move forward and investigate Foster's complaint as early as next week. The Special Counsel is separate from the Justice Department counsel investigating Russia contacts between Russian officials and the Trump presidential campaign.