Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, spoke publicly for the first time on Tuesday, since news of the agency's decision to spend $31,000 on a dining set for his office broke. And instead of taking a "buck stops here" approach, he blamed his wife.
Carson testified before the House Appropriations Committee and defended the order, telling the House he failed to obey the $5,000 limit for the lavish purchase out of concern for safety.
"People were stuck by nails, and a chair had collapsed with someone sitting in it," Carson explained, reportedly referencing an email sent by an aide who expressed concern that the old dining set was falling apart and could lead to an accident.
Carson also said he dismissed himself from the spending decision because he was busy tending to agency affairs, instead asking his wife, Candy, to do the work.
"I left it with my wife. I said help choose something, but I said the money that is going to be used, we need to take care of the deputy secretary's office, and you know, whatever's left over take care of the dining room furniture," he said.
The former neurosurgeon defended his wife's involvement in the selection of the furniture, saying she chose the style and color but said that they told staff they were unhappy with the price. "I was told that traditionally secretaries redecorate their offices. I came in I looked at it," Carson told the committee. "You know, I'm not really big into decorating. If it was up to me my office would probably look like a hospital waiting room."
"If anyone knew my wife they would know how ridiculous this was. She's the most frugal person in the world," Carson said. He also said his wife is not involved in any other spending decisions at the agency.
Carson provided more details about his and his wife's participation in the department's decision to order the dining set, which has since been cancelled. He told the House he asked his wife to help him select used furniture stored in the basement of the agency's headquarters, in addition to choosing a new dining set.
The controversy started to unfold after Helen Foster, a former senior HUD staffer, filed a complaint that she was pressured to find a way around the federal spending cap for redecorating Carson's office. Foster claimed she was ousted from her post as chief administrative officer at the agency in retaliation for blowing the whistle about the unlawful decorative expenditures and other misuses of taxpayer dollars at the agency. Carson said he didn't know Foster and wasn't aware of any retaliation.
Last week, the department's communications director Raffi Williams confirmed that Candy Carson participated in selecting the dining set for her husband's office, after agency emails were released showing the secretary and his wife were directly involved in the decision and a discrepancy between Williams' previous comments regarding their participation.
Ben and Candy Carson shared a tweet from their joint account after the agency confirmed the expensive dining set order, that they did nothing wrong and that "a full disclosure is forthcoming" about the purchase.