White House 'looking into' $31,561 dining room set purchase under HUD Secretary Ben Carson

Key Points
  • Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson directed the department's chief financial officer, Irving Dennis, to craft a new plan to fight waste, fraud and abuse.
  • Dennis' added responsibilities come amid controversy over HUD's since-canceled purchase of an executive dining room set for more than $31,000.
  • A former top HUD administrator says she was demoted after resisting a call to help Candy Carson spend more than the $5,000 legal maximum on furniture to outfit her husband Ben's office.
Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Cameron Costa | CNBC

The White House said Thursday that it is "looking into" the controversial purchase of a $31,561 mahogany dining room set at the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department under Secretary Ben Carson.

That comment by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders came hours after Carson said he was telling his new financial watchdog, Irving Dennis, to design "transformational plans" to tackle "waste, fraud and abuse" at HUD.

And it came a day after news broke that Carson's wife, Candy Carson, had participated in selecting styles for the infamous dining room set, despite HUD's initial claims that Ben Carson had not known about the purchase before it came to light in late February.

An email disclosed Wednesday shows that a HUD staffer referred to "the furniture that the Secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out."

And another email showed that Aida Rodriguez, an administrative officer in HUD's executive office, wrote in an August email that she thought the dining room set had "a very reasonable price."

The set of furniture was to have graced HUD's executive dining room, located near the secretary's office. Carson has since canceled the order after a wave of bad publicity about it. The scrutiny was especially pronounced since the department focuses in large part on facilitating access to affordable housing for low-income Americans.

White House spokeswoman Sanders was asked at a news conference if the purchase of the dining room set was an appropriate use of taxpayer money, and if President Donald Trump had spoken to Carson about it.

"This is something we're looking into," Sanders said. "I don't have any updates on that front."

A former top HUD official, Helen Foster, has complained that she was repeatedly told in early 2017 to "find money" for Candy Carson to purchase furniture for her husband's office. Candy Carson is not a HUD employee.

Foster, who had been the department's chief administrative officer, has said she was demoted after pushing back on efforts to help Candy Carson redecorate the office at a cost above the $5,000 legal threshold for such projects.

HUD said that Thursday that Dennis, the department's chief financial officer, will be overseeing the design and implementation of "a transformation plan and lead an internal task force to combat waste, fraud and abuse.

Carson appointed Dennis "to protect the financial integrity of the agency and correct lax internal processes and controls," according to HUD.

"We simply need to do better," Carson said.

"We will approach this as any business would by increasing transparency and accountability," the secretary said. "In the end, we will also support a culture that respects the fact that HUD funds belong to the public."

Even before Foster lodged her complaint about proposed spending on his office, Ben Carson was under fire for allegedly ignoring warnings from HUD lawyers that allowing his son Ben Jr. to be involved in organizing a HUD "listening tour" in 2017 risked running afoul of ethics rules.

Ben Carson has asked HUD's internal watchdog, the inspector general's office, to investigate the role of his family members at the department.