A day after news broke that the Department of Housing and Urban Development purchased a dining set worth $31,000, Secretary Ben Carson told his social media followers to "rest assured" he had done no wrong. He asked for "God's guidance to do what is right."
Now Carson wants to cancel the $31,000 order, he said in a statement Thursday night.
"I was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered," Carson said.
The secretary's statements followed days of uproar over money his office spent on the lavish furniture, prompted by news of a complaint filed by a former HUD chief administration officer, Helen Foster. She accused the agency of demoting her in retaliation for concerns she raised about office expenses.
Shortly before President Donald Trump's inauguration, acting secretary Craig Clemmensen told Foster that Carson's wife, Candy Carson, wanted her husband's office upgraded, Foster wrote in her complaint. When Foster replied that the department could not spend more than $5,000 on the refurbishment without congressional approval, Clemmensen instructed her to "find money," Foster wrote.
On Wednesday, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., launched a probe into the allegations of excessive spending and retaliation at HUD. Gowdy wrote a letter to Carson requesting "all documents and communications" related to the redecorating of his office and all documentation pertaining to Foster.
Carson denies overspending on refurbishing his office. The total redecoration cost was less than $3,500, he said in his statement Thursday. "This is considerably less than the historical norm," he added. They brought used furniture from the basement, hung up used drapes and installed blinds on the windows, he said.
HUD spokesman Raffi Williams previously said the $31,000 dining set was ordered by career staffers in charge of the building — not as part of the redecoration of Carson's office.
The current set of dining room furniture, used for business luncheons with the secretary's guests, is 30 to 50 years old and "very worn," Carson explained Thursday.
"It has also been characterized as unsafe," he said. (Some people on Twitter, including comedian Chelsea Handler, questioned what kind of dangers he could be referring to.)
Carson said he did not request new furniture, but was told the existing set was "beyond repair and needed to be replaced." Yet Carson's predecessor, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro told CNN that he "never felt as though we needed to replace the table or chairs."
Carson said he was "shocked" as he browsed through catalogues and noticed the costs of dining furniture. His wife asked if they could acquire used furniture, but that option was not allowed, Carson said.
Carson said he was given a $25,000 budget for the dining room redecoration that had to be used by a set date. His wife searched through catalogues and "wanted to be sure that the color of the chair fabric of any set that was chosen matched the rest of the decour [sic]."
"I made it known that I was not happy about the prices being charged and that my preference would be to find something more reasonable," he said. "I left this matter alone to concentrate on much bigger issues."
The furniture was scheduled to be delivered in May, Evelyn Sebree, the owner of Sebree and Associates, an interior design firm that sold the set to HUD, told CNN. Sebree expected to receive the full payment after the delivery. She said the agency had asked for something "traditional" to replace the old "raggedy" furniture."
The mahogany dining set HUD ordered includes a table, sideboard, breakfront, and 10 chairs with a blue velvet finish, CNN reported. Three of the set's pieces - the sideboard, wood top and breakfront deck base — totaled $13,579. The description reads: "Crafted of crotch mahogany, satin wood and quartered mahogany borders, carved teardrop and dentil molding on crown." The total price of the set was $31,651, CNN reported.
Carson has requested that the dining set order be canceled, but his adviser Armstrong Williams told the Washington Post in a phone interview, "it's not that simple."
Because of the contracts involved, and the money already spent on the order, it might not be possible for the agency to get a full refund.
"You just have to learn lessons from this and move on," Armstrong Williams added.