Secretary Ben Carson of the Department of Housing and Urban Development addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
National | Politics

Housing Secretary Ben Carson slammed for spending amid budget cuts

Ben Carson, the Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is coming under fire for spending $31,561 on new furniture for his office in Washington, D.C.

Carson denied authorizing the purchase himself but doesn't plan on returning the costly custom table, chairs and hutch, a spokesperson told The New York Times. He also did not ask Congress for approval even though federal law requires it if the cost of furnishing or redecorating a government office exceeds $5,000, the paper said.

But when a career staffer raised concerns about the spending level, she was told “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair," The Guardian reported. She has since filed a whistle-blower complaint about the incident.

The spending comes as Carson seeks to cut more than $110 million from Indian housing programs at the department. The fiscal year 2019 budget calls for a cut of $54 million from the Native American Housing Block Grant, as well as the complete elimination of the $60 million Indian Community Development Block Grant.

"The proposed budget cuts to tribal governmental services, if enacted, would represent a clear retreat from the federal commitments and treaty promises made to tribes," National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said in a February 14 statement following the release of the budget proposal.

Carson spoke to NCAI during the organization's winter session in D.C. a day earlier. He didn't mention any of the budget cuts but shared some unusual information about his personal background, telling attendees that he thought he had some Indian ancestors in his family tree.

“I got the DNA test and I didn’t have any. I was really disappointed. But I got the spirit," Carson said on February 13, as some in the audience laughed.

He then said that his wife, Candy, who has been accused in the whistle-blower complaint of pressuring HUD employees to redecorate her husband's office, also took a test. He said it showed she was part "Cherokee."

A post on Carson's official Twitter account later touted his appearance before the "National Council of American Indian Leadership Meeting."

"Yesterday, I talked about the work that @HUDGov does to promote affordable housing for Native American Communities," it read. HUD's website also features the text of Carson's speech as prepared for delivery -- no mention of DNA in it.

Though Carson took some questions following his remarks, no one challenged him on the budget cuts, his DNA results or a controversial signing statement that incorrectly labeled Indian housing programs as ones based on "race." That upset Kitcki Carroll, a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes who serves as executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, another inter-tribal organization.

"We don't need to be nice to him about that," Carroll said after Carson left the stage.

Keel and other tribal leaders acknowledged the concerns, which were similar to ones raised by other attendees and, a day later, NCAI issued the statement about the budget cuts. Keel also read from the statement while at the speaker's podium on February 14.

Amid the questions, HUD has approved plans to buy another $165,000 on “lounge furniture” in D.C., The Guardian reported. Tribal advocates who want to ask him about the spending might get an opportunity at an upcoming event hosted by the National American Indian Housing Council, a non-profit that represents 478 tribes and tribal housing organizations.

“I am looking forward to addressing the National American Indian Housing Council at this year’s Annual Legislative Conference," Carson said in a press release distributed by the organization. "The counsel and cooperation of the NAIHC is a vital resource in HUD’s mission to better serve families on tribal lands, and all Americans.”

Prior to speaking at NCAI, Carson addressed the United Native American Housing Association in Montana. His appearance before NAIHC's conference, which takes place March 5-7 in D.C., will be his third major foray into Indian issues.

But like many of his colleagues in the Cabinet, Carson has been working on Indian issues without key leadership. President Donald Trump nominated Robert Hunter Kurtz to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing last year but he has yet to be confirmed.

"I had the opportunity to travel to Indian country with Secretary Carson earlier this year in my current capacity, and appreciate and understand the needs of our tribal partners," Kurtz said in written testimony to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs last October. He has been serving as deputy chief of staff for policy and programs for Carson since January 2017.

"Please know that I am committed to working with our tribal partners to ensure safe, decent and affordable housing for these communities," added Kurtz, who has worked at HUD during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

Kurtz went before the committee for his nomination hearing on October 26, 2017. He was later approved at a business meeting on November 28.

His nomination was sent to the full Senate on January 17, according to the Congressional Record.

HUD's career staff includes Heidi Frechette, who serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Native American Programs. Despite her title, she is not able to offer policy positions on Indian issues on behalf of the Trump administration. She is of Menominee, Brothertown and Stockbridge-Munsee ancestry.

Read More on the Story:
US official: I was demoted for rejecting Ben Carson's costly office revamp (The Guardian February 27, 2018)
US housing department to spend $165,000 on own furniture as it faces $6.8bn budget cut (The Guardian February 27, 2018)
HUD civil servant claims retaliation after red-flagging Carson's decorating (POLITICO February 27, 2018)
‘I do like 3 meetings a day on that’: HUD official complained about effort to redecorate Carson’s office (The Washington Post February 27, 2018)
Ben Carson’s HUD Spends $31,000 on Dining Set for His Office (The New York Times February 27, 2018)
$5,000 for a ‘decent chair’ for Ben Carson? Here are some less-pricey options. (The Washington Post February 28, 2018)