After reports surfaced earlier this month that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson spent $31,000 of taxpayer funds on a dining set for his government office, the former Republican presidential candidate said he was “as surprised as anyone to find out” about the lavish purchase.
That’s because Carson’s wife was responsible for the decision, the secretary said at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
After staffers gave Carson a few options for tables, the secretary said he “left it with [his] wife” and asked her to “help choose something.”
“The next thing that I, quite frankly, heard about it was that this $31,000 table had been bought,” he told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “I said, ‘What the heck is that all about?’ I investigated, I immediately had it canceled. Not that we don’t need the furniture, but I thought that that was excessive.”
A request to cancel the purchase was issued only after multiple news outlets reported about it. The steep cost raised ethics concerns for exceeding the $5,000 federal limit on office decor, especially in light of the agency’s proposed budget cuts. Carson said at the hearing that all funds had been returned to the U.S. Treasury.
Additionally, when The New York Times first reported on the extravagant purchase, HUD spokesman Raffi Williams told the paper that Carson did not think the purchase was over-the-top and did not intend to return the furniture set.
Carson has also said that he was not involved with the final decision, arguing again on Tuesday that he was busy doing other things and “really wasn’t concerned about furniture.” A HUD spokesperson first told CNN that neither Carson or his wife, Candy, were involved in the decision to purchase the $31,000 dining set.
But emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, show that Carson and his wife, Candy, were both involved in selecting the furniture.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Carson described his wife as “the most frugal person in the world.” When asked if his wife had any other involvement with taxpayer money, he replied, “None whatsoever.”
Candy’s involvement with the process had already raised questions, with former HUD official Helen Foster filing a whistleblower complaint with the department’s special counsel last year. Foster said she was demoted after raising concerns about the office decor expense exceeding the $5,000 federal limit. The Times reported the complaint also accused Candy of pressuring the HUD staff to find ways to get around the price limit.