AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This week, some bad press hit the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD officials had approved a $31,000 dining set for Secretary Ben Carson's office even though federal law places a $5,000 cap on furnishing or redecorating a department head's office. HUD says it's canceling the furniture order now after the House Oversight Committee started looking into the matter.
The whole incident has raised larger questions about how Ben Carson is running the agency. With us now to talk about that is reporter Alec MacGillis from ProPublica. Welcome.
ALEC MACGILLIS: Thank you.
CHANG: Were you surprised that HUD approved this purchase of a $31,000 dining set? And there were apparently $3,400 window treatments, too.
MACGILLIS: Yes, there was all sorts of expenses. I was - I really was surprised, actually. Of all the problems I discovered at HUD in my reporting over the past year, the overspending by Ben Carson was not one of them. This is someone who is still taking commercial flights, sitting in the middle seat in coach unlike a lot of the other cabinet secretaries who are flying around in private jets. So this is not something I really expected from him.
CHANG: And especially now that HUD is going through some severe budget cuts, these extravagances just seem in stark contrast to what's happening across the department.
MACGILLIS: Definitely. These purchases were made at a time when HUD was facing a cut of I think 15 percent from the White House, which would have just devastated public housing, public housing upkeep, Section 8 vouchers, all sorts of programs that a lot of needy people around the country depend on.
CHANG: So according to a HUD spokesman, Secretary Carson says he did not know the table had been purchased. And there were reports that the actual person behind the furniture purchase was his wife, Candy Carson. Why is his wife even making purchases for the agency?
MACGILLIS: That's a very good question. Turns out that his wife, Candy, has been taking a very, very active role at the department. It started off right on the first day when he introduced himself to several hundred HUD employees at their headquarters in Washington. And she was actually the first person to speak to the gathered employees. And she said, we're very excited to be working with you. And then she kind of caught herself and said, well, he's excited to be working with you. And then she turned over...
MACGILLIS: ...Turned over the mike to Ben Carson. And in meetings, she would often be the more voluble person. Ben Carson is notoriously soft-spoken.
MACGILLIS: You have to lean forward to hear what he's saying, and - whereas Candy Carson is a charismatic person and just really had a very strong presence within the department.
CHANG: Oh, so she's attending meetings - like, meetings discussing internal policy, meetings with staff?
MACGILLIS: Yes, she is. It's quite remarkable. For instance, there was a visit to Baltimore, one of the sort of listening tour trips. She came along on that trip and was present at all of his meetings with city housing officials, with developers, with the mayor. Also present was Ben Carson's son, Ben Jr., and his son's wife, Ben's daughter-in-law.
The one thing I observed in Baltimore which really startled me was watching Ben Jr. being approached by a couple entrepreneurs who wanted to pitch HUD on a plan to replace cash bail with turning in guns as a way of paying bail. And they were going to do this sort of through housing authorities. I watched as Ben Jr., who knew these gentlemen, brought them over to meet his dad's top aides to make their pitch. So it's really quite striking to see the son of a cabinet secretary serving in that kind of role.
CHANG: How would you describe the guiding principles Carson uses to run HUD? Do you have a sense of his mission?
MACGILLIS: No, I don't. And I think a lot of people there also do not, which is why there has been such demoralization there. At times, he's made comments that really almost sound like he's actually critical of the mission of HUD and the mission of providing a safety net. But it's not as if he's actually taken very many active steps to sort of enact this kind of anti-government vision.
And this is not like what's happening at other agencies such as the EPA, where Scott Pruitt has been very actively trying to dismantle that agency and undermine its mission of environmental protection. In the case of HUD, it's much more a matter of things kind of being very aimless. So it's a different model of how the government can run astray. It's through inattention and dysfunction rather than outright activist dismantling.
CHANG: You noted that there's been a problem with morale during Carson's tenure so far. But there has been a problem with morale at HUD for years. Have you noticed a precipitous drop in morale since Carson's arrival, or it's just more of the same?
MACGILLIS: HUD has definitely struggled with morale over the years largely I think because it's just fallen such a long way from its grand ambitions of its founding back in the '60s. It was founded as part of the Great Society and the War on Poverty in the LBJ years. But it really has - it's shrunken quite a lot. It's down to fewer than 8,000 employees. It used to be twice that. But morale had really picked up quite a bit in the Obama years, and there was just a sense that things were really happening again.
And now under Ben Carson, there has been a big drop in morale. It's the sense that, my goodness, what does the Trump administration think of us as a department if they would put in charge of us someone who has zero experience in the field that we work in? That's what a HUD employee said to me. It's as if I had just walked out of this door one day and declared that I was going to become a nurse. There was just the sense that what we do doesn't matter if they're putting in charge of us someone who has no experience in this area.
CHANG: That's Alec MacGillis. He covers politics and government for ProPublica. Thank you very much.
MACGILLIS: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.