Did HUD really need to spend $31000 of taxpayer money on that dining furniture for Ben Carson?
Did HUD really need to spend $31,000 of taxpayer money on that dining furniture for Ben Carson?CLOSE
In late 2017, the Department of Housing and Urban Development bought a $31,000 dining room set for Secretary Ben Carsonâs Office. Veuer's Natasha Abellard (@NatashaAbellard) has the story.
Let's say you're a Trump administration official with old dining room furniture in your Washington, D.C. executive suite. What do you do?
In the case of Ben Carson, the presidential cabinet secretary who heads the Department of Housing and Urban Development, his staff declared the circa 1967 dining set was beyond repair and spent $31,561 on a custom hardwood table, chairs, and a hutch to replace it.
A federal law limits spend ing for redecorating or refurbishing to $5,000 unless Congress approves more. However, whistleblower complaints filed by Helen Foster, a high-ranking HUD civil servant, allege that a top official repeatedly told Foster to "find money," for the purchase.
More: Ben Carson's HUD spent $31,000 on dining room furniture for his office
Foster's complaints charge that Carson's wife, Candy, wanted to help redecorate the office suite. Foster was demoted in reprisal after she raised questions about the work and other HUD spending, the complaints allege.
The allegations make Carson the latest Trump cabinet members to face questions about spending issues.
HUD declined to comment on Foster's complaints. Raphael Williams, the housing agency's communications director, said in a Thursday email that HUD "is working to rescind the order for the dining room set," at Carson's request.
The announcement came a day after Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog organization, asked HUD Inspector General Helen Albert to investigate Foster's allegations.
Could Carson and HUD have gotten a better deal for American taxpayers by shopping around?
Although a furniture trade industry spokeswoman suggested the cost of the controversial dining set actually might be reasonable, USA TODAY online comparison shopping identified less-pricey options.
On the higher end, the website of Raymour & Flanigan, a furniture chain with stores in seven Northeast states, lists a 98-inch, cherry-colored dining table with a double pedestal for $3,379. The company also sells matching armchairs for $759.95 each. A 92-inch-high china cabinet for $5,869 would complete the set.
According to the furniture company website, the price tag for the table, eight chairs and the hutch, without tax or delivery charges, totals $15,329, or less than half the cost of Carson's HUD dining set.CLOSE
The Housing and Urban Development secretary's comments come at a time when many are already concerned about the future of HUD programs. Video provided by Newsy
Still too expensive?
Carson and HUD potentially could have settled on a more affordable option from American Signature, a furniture company with stores in 17 states. The firm's website features a charcoal-colored dining table with two pedestals and matching upholstered side chairs.
Combined with a combination buffet and hutch, the table and eight chairs would cost approximately $2,708, without tax or delivery charges, the company website shows. The total potentially would comply with the federal spending limit on redecorations.
The $31,500 HUD cost could be justified if the dining set were made of solid wood or hand-constructed ve neer and featured solid brass hardware, said Jackie Hirschhaut, a spokeswoman for the American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade group for the residential furniture industry.
"Consumers might be outraged at the concept of spending $31,500," said Hirschhaut, but "this furniture will last 50-plus years of daily, rugged use."
That said, at least one decorating expert suggested HUD need not spend so much.CLOSE
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Charles Krewson, a Washington, D.C.-based interior decorator, said his first recommendation would be to explore refinishing of the existing HUD dining set. "A clever refinisher can really transform things, and so can a good upholsterer," he said.
But in some cases, salvaging would be difficult, Krewson said.
"Usually people of means in a situation like that actually pay for it themselves, that's what I've had happen in the past," he said. "Someone who's an honorary ambassador or something like that, they usually pick up a lot of the tab and just improve things."
Carson isn't the first Trump appointee whose spending has raised questions.
More: HHS Secretary Tom Price resigns in wake of travel spending scandal
More: Steven Mnuchin requested an Air Force jet for his European honeymoon, report says
More: VA Secretary David Shulkin misused government resources, agency watchdog report says
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned in September amid reports that he ran up roughly $1 million in flight costs on private and military aircraft.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin re quested a U.S. Air Force jet to fly him and his new wife, Louise Linton, to France, Italy, and Scotland for their summer 2017 honeymoon, ABC News reported.
Mnuchin later decided the request was unnecessary because he could arrange secure communications during the trip without a military jet.
Separately, the Treasury inspector general's office said it would review the trip Linton and his wife took to the U.S. Bullion Depository in Kentucky at the time of the August 2017 solar eclipse.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife during a European trip last summer that cost taxpayers more than $122,000, a VA inspector general report concluded in February.
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