Oversight in Action: A $43,000 Soundproof Booth, A $31,000 Table, and an Uber Driver at HUD

American Oversight has been holding the Trump administration accountable for over a year. Using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and litigation, we’ve been able to extract documents showing evidence of misconduct – and we’ve made those records available to journalists and the public. Here are some of the recent examples of our work in action:

Scott Pruitt’s Spending Spree

We obtained records of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s office renovations, which violated the federal spending limit of $5,000. The expenses included a $3,000 standing desk and an invoice for biometric locks for Scott Pruitt’s office. But most problematically, these records we obtained through FOIA litigation revealed that Scott Pruitt’s soundproof phone booth–which was originally reported to cost taxpayer $25,000–actually cost $43,000. The Washington Post reported:

Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 soundproof phone booth? It actually cost more like $43,000.

The agency paid a Virginia firm $7,978 to remove closed-circuit television equipment to make room for the booth, according to a federal database. Officials hired another contractor to pour 55 square feet of concrete more than two feet thick, at a cost of $3,470, according to invoices released under a public records request by the watchdog group American Oversight. Other workers installed a drop ceiling for $3,361, while still others patched and painted the small area for $3,350, records show.

In total, the EPA appears to have spent more than $18,000 on the prep work, readying the space for a $25,000 soundproof booth that has brought Pruitt a wave of criticism and official scrutiny. The total cost for the project now appears to be closer to $43,000.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) later found that Scott Pruitt violated federal spending laws.

Carson Family Actions at HUD

Earlier this year, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was criticized for attempting to spend $31,000 on a dining set and for allowing his family members to take on a role at the agency and benefit from his position. Emails we obtained reveal that his wife, son, and daughter-in-law have all had meetings and communication with HUD senior staff.

When Carson had to answer questions about the dining set and his family involvement (which a HUD attorney told him would raise legal and ethical concerns,) he first said that he didn’t know about the dining set–then he said his wife picked it out. And we know from records of email communications that we obtained, that Carson was, in fact, involved in the furniture purchase.

Ben Carson Defends Buying $31,000 Dining Set to Congress: ‘I Left It to My Wife’

But for the most part, Mr. Carson sought to distance himself from the purchase, saying that he had delegated most of the decision-making to his wife and top aides, including his executive assistant.

“I invited my wife to come and help,” he said. “I left it to my wife, you know, to choose something. I dismissed myself from the issues.” And it was Mrs. Carson, he said, who “selected the color and style” of the furniture, “with the caveat that we were both not happy about the price.”

But emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request last week seemed to contradict that account. In an Aug. 29, 2017 email, the department’s administrative officer, Aida Rodriguez, wrote that one of her colleagues “has printouts of the furniture the secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out.”

Illegal Political Activity at the FCC

In response to our letter, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) found that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Michael O’Rielly violated the Hatch Act by advocating for the reelection of President Trump at CPAC.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly Violated Federal Law to Promote Trump, Special Counsel’s Office Says

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) determined that O’Rielly violated the Hatch Act when he told a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to “make sure President Trump gets re-elected,” the letter says. The OSC wrote that O’Rielly “violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using his official authority or influence to affect an election.”

The Hatch Act, passed in 1939, forbids most federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on the job.

The OSC issued O’Rielly a warning stating that another violation would be considered “a willful and knowing violation of the law, which could result in further action pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 1215.”

(Even More) Unqualified Political Appointees

American Oversight obtained resumes for appointees across the Trump administration. Many reveal connections to President Trump and limited experience. HUD is no exception.

Rise from one-time Uber driver to chief of staff startles some HUD observers

CNN’s review of Hughes’ prior experience and employment as listed on his financial disclosure form found that, just eight months before joining HUD, Hughes worked as a special projects coordinator for the University of Texas System and briefly as an Uber driver.

During his time at the university, Hughes managed social media and websites, compiled press releases, planned university events, researched funding opportunities and kept abreast of any legislation related to higher education, according to his resume, obtained through a freedom of information request by American Oversight, a watchdog group with former Obama appointees.

Hughes began at HUD as the department liaison to the Trump White House in January 2017. Prior to that, Hughes worked on Carson’s presidential effort as part of the campaign’s get out the vote effort and then served in a similar capacity for three months with Donald Trump’s campaign.

Former political appointees from both parties, along with current department staff, have expressed concern that Carson, a medical doctor with no government experience prior to taking the reins of HUD, is surrounded by some advisers and now a chief of staff who are similarly inexperienced.