Watchdog: HUD broke law with $40,000 furniture purchase for Ben Carson

The Department of Housing and Urban Development broke the law when it spent about $40,000 in 2017 for a new dining set and dishwasher for Secretary Ben Carson’s office, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a letter Thursday to Congress, the GAO’s general counsel said HUD broke the law when it obligated over $31,000 for the purchase of a dining set and nearly $9,000 for the purchase and installation of a new dishwasher and water treatment system.

Under law, federal employees are prohibited from spending in excess of an appropriation and an agency is restricted under law from spending more than $5,000 to furnish or redecorate an office without notifying Congress.

The government watchdog agency said HUD did not violate the law when it purchased new blinds for Carson’s office because it did not exceed the $5,000 limit.

In a statement Friday, HUD’s chief financial officer Irv Dennis said the agency has made “significant and measurable improvement to our financial controls” since Carson announced in March a new effort to fix the agency’s finances, and an internal task force to “combat waste, fraud and abuse.”

“But we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” Dennis said. “A new day is dawning at HUD. Our job is to make sure systems are in place to protect every taxpayer dollar we spend and to restore sound financial management and stability to the way we do business.”

In a letter to GAO from August, HUD acknowledged that it violated the law by not notifying Congress with its 2017 furniture purchase, but cited previous expenditures from 2008 through 2016, like leather conference room chairs and new carpet, totaling over the $5,000 limit, which HUD said also were not reported to Congress.

CNN previously reported that in early 2017, a top HUD career employee chief was pressured to “find money” beyond the legal $5,000 limit to renovate Carson’s office. The official, Helen Foster, claimed she was demoted when she had refused to comply. At the time, a HUD spokesperson disputed Foster’s account.

A HUD spokesperson had also previously told CNN that “Mrs. Carson and the secretary had no awareness” that the dining room set was being purchased. Internal HUD emails, however, indicated that the Carsons had picked out the furniture.

Carson testified before Congress last March pinning the selection of the furniture on his wife and claiming he was not aware of the more than $31,000 price tag until it was reported by the media. He also said he canceled the order and returned the money to the US Treasury.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Jack Reed called GAO’s conclusions of Carson and HUD’s actions as “another example of the Trump Administration trying to cast aside the law if it doesn’t suit them.”

Reed, the top Democrat on the committee that oversees HUD, argued that Carson “showed a willful disregard for the appropriate use of taxpayers dollars.”

“I am also disturbed by the pattern of false statements and attempts to conceal this incident, mislead the public, and prevent Congress and the American people from seeing how taxpayer dollars are being mismanaged,” Reed said. “There needs to be more accountability at HUD and stronger oversight of the Trump Administration or else this pattern of unlawful behavior will continue, and I worry it won’t just be a small amount of money the next time.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from HUD.

CNN’s Rene Marsh and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.