Democrats question Carson on 'extremely disturbing' news about HUD spending

PHOTO: Ben Carson (L) is sworn in as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by Vice President Mike Pence in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, March 2, 2017. in Washington, D.C. PlayBrendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH Democrat questions Ben Carson over $31,000 furniture purchase

For the second time this week, Congressional Democrats pressed Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson over his involvement in the agency's decision to order a $31,000 dining set for Carson's office.

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Carson again claimed he argued the cost was too high and denied news stories that he said "talked about the extravagant taste of my wife in redecorating my office."

Ranking Member Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said it was "extremely disturbing" to read about controversies at the department.

"Under your leadership Secretary Carson, HUD has decided a wobbly chair in a private D.C. dining room requires the urgent attention of no fewer than 16 staffers and thousands, thousands of taxpayer dollars," Brown said. "Unsafe and unsanitary conditions in public housing that puts working children and families at risk? Not our problem you say, let them use vouchers."

Brown also said he was questioning his vote to support Carson's confirmation as secretary.

Carson testified in a different committee hearing on Tuesday that he "dismissed" himself from the process of choosing dining room furniture for his office and that he asked his wife to help make the decision. He said he did not know the expensive furniture had been ordered until it was publicly reported.

He defended his role in the purchase again on Thursday, saying that staff asked him to help choose the furniture and that he told them the options were too expensive. Carson said he has asked the agency's chief financial officer to develop new purchasing guidelines and financial controls at the agency.

"The actual stories talked about the extravagant taste of my wife in redecorating my office. We spent a total of $3,500 decorating my office, considerably less than the historical norm," Carson said later in the hearing. "It's not a table, its 17 pieces of furniture that we were asked to replace because it could no longer be repaired after multiple attempts to repair it. The bottom line is that table has not materialized and there is no cost to the people."

When HUD initially confirmed the table was ordered it also provided documents to ABC News confirming that the department spent about $3,500 on new blinds for Carson's office, as well as $1,100 to try to repair the dining set, which the agency said had been in the office since the 1960's.

Carson said Thursday that he wasn't aware there was a $5,000 legal limit on redecorating expenses in the Thursday hearing but that he takes responsibility for the decision.

PHOTO: Ben Carson (L) is sworn in as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by Vice President Mike Pence in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, March 2, 2017. in Washington, D.C. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Ben Carson (L) is sworn in as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by Vice President Mike Pence in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, March 2, 2017. in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., also asked Carson about the department's decision to revise its mission statement, potentially removing language about anti-discrimination programs.

The draft of the new statement, first reported by the Huffington Post, references "self-sufficiency," which Carson has emphasized as part of an effort to get people out of public housing and assistance programs.

"Mission statements may not be policy directives but in this case, you've established a pattern and a practice of suggesting that HUD intends to reverse course and ignore its statutory obligation to end housing discrimination and promote inclusive communities. That's not something that many of us are going to stand by," Menendez said.

Carson said that other administrations have also changed the HUD mission statement and that he also would not stand by if the agency stepped away from its policies to combat housing discrimination. He also said in the hearing that his goal is to get people to a point where they don't receive benefits.

Several members of the committee said that the department needs to find the balance between helping people get to a point where they do not need housing assistance and protecting people whose benefits could be more expensive if the department changes its policies like increasing mandatory minimum rent costs.

"I do appreciate the fact that you are trying to lift people up," said Sen. Doug Jones, D-La., "Despite all the efforts to lift them up they can't quite make it and there's a lot of people in my state that despite their efforts and their desire in their heart and they're trying like hell they just can't quite make it and we need to be there for those people continually."

Some Republicans on the committee thanked Carson for his efforts to get people off HUD programs. Sen. John Kennedy, R- Louisiana, said many government programs have become "parking lots when they're supposed to be bridges" and said he supports work requirements on people who are physically able.

"I don't want to take food stamps or affordable housing away from people in need but I do want fewer people to need food stamps and affordable housing," Kennedy said.

Members of the committee also asked Carson about the department's budget. The president's proposed budget would have cut multiple HUD programs significantly but the appropriations bill published by Congress on Wednesday night includes a 10 percent increase in overall funding for the department, according to a statement from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

"This is the second year in a row that this administration tried to eviscerate the already inadequate funding that we provide for affordable housing, thank goodness Congress is the one that provides the funding and saw the needed to ensure that we are shoring up those resources," Sen. Laura Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said.

Congress is set to vote on the spending bill before the end of the week.

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