How FEMA Learned from Ben Carson’s $31,000 Dining Set Purchase

From outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s bear and bison decorations to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s secret $43,000 phone booth, cabinet officials’ use of taxpayer money for lavish office renovations has drawn its share of negative press. And according to emails obtained by American Oversight, it appears that at least one instance — the public outcry over Housing Secretary Ben Carson’s $31,000 dining set — may have dissuaded other officials from similar spending sprees.

Emails show that officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency began discussing office renovations in May 2017 and continued these talks well into 2018. A full redesign was initially estimated at $973,000, and in April 2018 FEMA Administrator Brock Long’s office proposed an alternate renovation that was projected to cost $700,000.

A January 2018 email reveals that Long continually asked his staff about the office redesign. “Administrator is asking his staff about the new reconf. everyday,” wrote Tyrone Nunnally, a FEMA employee.  

In late February 2018, news surfaced that Secretary Carson had attempted to purchase a $31,000 dining set. American Oversight sued for records of that purchase, revealing that Carson had lied when he initially denied not knowing about the furniture’s cost.

The controversy around Carson’s exorbitant spending was clearly on the minds of FEMA officials. In February, Kevin Yusman, a deputy associate chief counsel, sent a link to a CNN story about Carson’s furniture purchases to Eric Leckey, the deputy chief administrative officer at FEMA. “I just saw this story on the news,” said Yusman. “It is certainly timely.”

James Reistrup, an appropriations counsel at FEMA, responded to Yusman’s email by joking, “Maybe HUD was thinking they should get some wiggle room, maybe another 10% on top of the 5-large limit, just because the HUD building itself is as ugly as homemade sin.”

Throughout the emails, employees acknowledged that the renovation proposal exceeded the $5,000 limit imposed by Congress, and that any excesses would need to be approved by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).

“I understand that part of the process is the estimates, we also recognize that the renovation would exceed the $5K, which is why OCAO [Office of the Chief Administrative Officer] was tasked to provide the estimated cost breakdown and OCC was to provide the approval chain,” said Zohra Amin, the acting executive officer, in a March 2018 email.  

A question and answer guidance on making office improvements was even circulated, citing Carson’s scandal as an example of what would happen if they decided to overspend anyway. The answer to the question “What if I do it anyway?” was “This raises several possibilities-bad ones and worse ones. Ben Carson could tell you about the bad ones, and if you don’t know about those, ask me for a copy of my CNN and Washington Post articles.”

Thomas Breslin, a FEMA senior adviser, questioned whether the agency should go forward with the renovation. “Based on the stuff going on across the cabinet I want to make sure that we are proceeding on the right path and I’m not sure what the right path even is which causes me grave concern,” Breslin wrote.

In the end, an email from Joel Doolin, the deputy chief counsel at FEMA, sent to Yusman in April indicates that the agency decided not to go through with the renovation, apparently deciding that the new office wasn’t that important. “Zohra told me this week that front office opted not to go forward with any improvements.”

In this case, aggressive oversight may have saved U.S. taxpayers hundreds thousands of dollars. Just a few months later Administrator Brock Long would face an investigation into his misuse of government vehicles and staff for personal use. Long didn’t resign, but in September, he was ordered to reimburse the federal government for using government-owned cars for personal use.

Related Blog Posts

September 25, 2019

American Oversight Statement on Impeachment Inquiry

Congress
Investigation Update
News
September 20, 2019

News Roundup: Trump, Giuliani, and Ukraine

Administration for Children and Families, Agency for International Development, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Reserve, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Institutes of Health, Starr County - Texas, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Texas Attorney General, Texas Secretary of State, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
News
September 19, 2019

Trump’s Obstruction of Congressional Oversight Has Been Unprecedented — Now We’re Suing the Administration for Stonewalling Our Investigation

Department of Commerce, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury, General Services Administration
Investigation Update
September 12, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks State Department Records of Jared Kushner’s Middle East Trips

Department of State
Investigation Update
September 4, 2019

Lawsuit Seeks Records from Investigation into Potential Trump Campaign-Finance Violations

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
August 30, 2019

News Roundup: Remain in Mexico’s Harmful Effects and Trump’s Dangerous Impatience

Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida House of Representatives, Florida Senate, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Geological Survey
News
August 26, 2019

American Oversight Sues for Records of Trump Administration Investigations of Hillary Clinton and the Russia Probe

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
August 16, 2019

News Roundup: The Hatch Act and Freedom of Speech

Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Special Counsel
News
August 13, 2019

AFGE Union Sues to Protect the Speech Rights of Federal Employees

Office of Special Counsel
News
August 1, 2019

New Lawsuit in Investigation of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s Use of Military Transport

Department of the Treasury
Investigation Update
July 26, 2019

News Roundup: Mueller Speaks

Bureau of Industry and Security, Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Army, Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Communications Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Institutes of Health, Office of Management and Budget, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
News
July 17, 2019

American Oversight Sues for Betsy DeVos’ Emails Sent with Personal Account

Department of Education
Investigation Update
May 3, 2019

News Roundup: Above the Law

Congress, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
News
April 29, 2019

The Dangers of Constitutional Hardball

Congress, Department of Justice, White House
News
April 18, 2019

A Guide to Barr’s Redactions to the Mueller Report

Department of Justice
News
April 16, 2019

We Want to Know How the Justice Department Found the Clinton Investigation Directive — Months After It Said It Didn’t Exist

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
April 11, 2019

William Barr’s Claims of Spying on the Trump Campaign Run Up Against Lack of Evidence

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
March 29, 2019

News Roundup: The Mueller Investigation Is Over, But the Swamp Is Thriving

News
March 25, 2019

The Corruption Continues: Mueller Has Finished His Work. American Oversight Has Not.

News
March 9, 2019

Sessions Letter Shows DOJ Acted on Trump’s Authoritarian Demand to Investigate Clinton

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
News
March 4, 2019

FBI Headquarters Investigation: Agencies Refusing to Search for Records of Trump Interference to Protect Hotel

Investigation Update
February 28, 2019

At Least Fourteen Federal Agencies Have Created No Guidance for Spending Taxpayer Money at Trump Properties

Investigation Update
January 18, 2019

News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration
News
January 3, 2019

Government Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stays Open Despite Shutdown and We Want to Know Why

News
December 31, 2018

New Emails Show Senior HUD Official Cited Trump Family in Personnel Dispute

Department of Housing and Urban Development
News
December 27, 2018

Countdown to Oversight in 2019

News
December 10, 2018

Wait, There’s More: News of Another Administration Official Using Personal Email

Environmental Protection Agency
News
October 23, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks Details of White House, Trump Organization Involvement in FBI Headquarters Decision

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
September 19, 2018

Investigation Update: Loyalty Tests and Retaliation

Investigation Update
April 16, 2018

Statement On Scott Pruitt’s Illegal Spending Spree

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
March 14, 2018

New Lawsuit: How Much are Cabinet Officials Spending on Office Upgrades

Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
March 14, 2018

New Emails Show Secretary Carson Knew About $31,000 Table

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
February 23, 2018

Investigation Update: Swamp Airlines – Private Jets at Taxpayer Expense

Investigation Update
February 16, 2018

Ethics Watchdog Calls for Investigation of Pruitt’s Expensive Travel Habits

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
February 12, 2018

American Oversight Sues DOJ Over Decision to Reopen Uranium One Investigation

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
February 6, 2018

Voter Fraud Commission Asked Texas to Highlight Hispanic Surnames in Voter Data

White House
Investigation Update
January 26, 2018

Lawsuit Seeks Evidence of Political Influence in DOJ Investigations

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
December 7, 2017

FBI Records Call Into Question Sessions’ Claims About Security Clearance Instructions

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
November 16, 2017

American Oversight Statement Regarding DOI Report on Zinke Travel

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
October 11, 2017

American Oversight Investigates Trump Administration Attacks on Free Press

Federal Communications Commission
News
September 25, 2017

Emails Show Ivanka Trump Used Personal Email Account at White House

Department of Labor, Small Business Administration
Investigation Update
September 21, 2017

Did our government spend big bucks to install Big Buck Hunter? We’re going to find out.

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
September 20, 2017

American Oversight Launches Investigation into Secretary Price’s Use of Private Jets for Official Travel

Department of Health and Human Services
Investigation Update
September 12, 2017

New Lawsuit: Did the FBI Really Advise Sessions to Omit Russian Contacts?

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
September 7, 2017

Investigating EPA’s Attacks on a Journalist

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
September 2, 2017

DOJ Confirms Trump Lied in “Wiretap” Tweets

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
July 11, 2017

Investigation of Trump Administration Actions and the AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Department of Justice
News
May 16, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Comey-Trump Memos

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 12, 2017

Letter to Burr and Warner: Senate Should Request Trump-Comey Tapes

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Statement on the Firing of FBI Director Comey

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for IG Investigation of Sessions for Violating Recusal

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
April 19, 2017

American Oversight Sues DOJ for Release of Trump Tower Wiretap Records, Russia Investigation Documents

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, White House
Investigation Update
April 7, 2017

Updated: American Oversight Investigates DHS Attempt to Stifle Online Criticism

Department of Homeland Security
News