It’s not just Donald Trump’s family that is bending the rules, ethically speaking. The family of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson also appears to be in some ethical hot water. A scandal is brewing around the retired neurosurgeon amid reports he allowed his son, Ben Carson Jr., to help organize an agency “listening tour” in Baltimore last summer despite warnings it might run afoul of federal ethics rules.
The Washington Post reported this week that Carson’s son and his daughter-in-law, Merlynn Carson, had asked multiple people to be invited to the tour, an event intended to give Carson a chance to see federally supported housing projects and discuss his policies. in a two-page memo written on July 6, 2017 and published by the Post this week, Linda Cruciani, HUD’s deputy general counsel for operations, raised concerns about the project, warning that it “gave the appearance that the Secretary may be using his position for his son’s private gain.”
Carson this week in a statement on social media said he and his family are “under attack by the media questioning our integrity and ethics” and referenced a Bible verse, Exodus 14:14, which says, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” He also asked for HUD’s inspector general to “review” his family’s role in the department. It’s not clear what that will entail.
Ben Carson Jr. wanted the Under Armour CEO and others to come see his dad listen
Per Cruciani’s July memo, Carson Jr. and his wife asked more than a half a dozen people to be invited to Secretary Carson’s Baltimore tour, including Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, Genesis Rehab Services co-chief operating officer Dan Hirschfield, and members of the Paterakis family, which owns a real estate development and bakery business in Baltimore. HUD officials Mason Alexander and Lynne Patton, both of whom were appointed by President Donald Trump, raised concerns about the invites. Patton, regional administration of HUD Region II, said the couple “may be doing business with these entities or may be interested in doing business with these entities.”
Carson Jr. is chairman and co-founder of Interprise Partners, a Maryland-based private equity firm, and he’s also chairman of the construction and engineering services company Argo Systems. His wife, Merlynn, is CEO of Myriddian LLC, a consulting company.
When HUD officials raised the matter with Carson Jr., he said his father had asked him to help with the Baltimore tour and that he had invited associates “who work with us, but [who] advance HUD initiatives.” The younger Carson batted down concerns of a conflict, saying “we don’t mix and match parties,” and said that he had three law firms and 2,600 employees and was regularly audited. “HUD can’t operate in Baltimore without touching on us,” he said.
When Cruciani and others raised the matter with Carson himself, he said it would be hard for his son not to be involved in the tour because he was “the largest employer in Maryland.” (He’s not.) “I said that I understood his frustration, but explained that the rule that he avoid any actions that might create the appearance of violating the law was broad,” Cruciani wrote.
Several of the guests that Carson Jr. and his wife invited told the Post they had received an invitation but had no business relationship with Carson Jr., and a spokeswoman for Plank told the Post he turned down the invite.
Even so, Carson Jr. and his wife also invited Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. As the Post notes, less than three months later, CMS awarded Myriddian, whose CEO is Carson’s daughter-in-law, a $485,000 contract without a competitive bidding process. A CMS spokesperson said that multiple minority-owned firms were considered, and Verma did not attend the Baltimore tour. CMS doesn’t have a record of her being invited.
Carson says he did nothing wrong — and that he’s looking into it
HUD spokesman Jereon Brown told the Post that Carson Jr.’s role wasn’t limited to the Baltimore event but didn’t explain where else he was involved. Brown said no one was dropped from the list of invitees after the ethics warning.
Still, questions persist. Secretary Carson’s family has had more involvement in official business than is par for the course — executive branch officials aren’t supposed to use their offices to advance private or commercial interests, and anti-nepotism laws bar officials from employing or promoting the interests of their relatives. Documents obtained by Democratic-leaning nonprofit American Oversight and shared with CNN this week show multiple HUD-organized meetings for Carson Jr. and “friends.” Emails also suggest Ben Carson’s wife, Candy Carson, pushed for her son to get a meeting with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
In a statement on Thursday, Carson asked his agency’s inspector general to look into his listening tour. “In my role as HUD secretary, I try to be as inclusive as possible and talk with a wide variety of people because when it comes to increasing access to affordable housing, no rock should remain unturned,” he said.
Carson just can’t seem to stay out of hot water, ethically speaking
This isn’t the first time Carson has been the subject of ethics scrutiny. Carson’s appearance at a campaign-style rally alongside President Trump in August raised questions about whether he had violated the Hatch Act, which bars executive branch officials from using their government positions to influence elections. Ethics watchdogs eventually agreed it was probably not a violation.
Carson’s bid for the 2016 Republican nomination for the presidency also raised eyebrows for its fundraising and spending. Carson raked in millions of dollars in donations during his campaign, largely from small-dollar donors, and had an unusually high “burn rate,” or pace of spending. And much of his campaign money went to a small group of marketers and consultants, enriching a handful of operatives close to Carson even as his poll numbers sank. “We had people who didn’t really seem to understand finances,” he said in a February 2016 interview with CNN. “Or maybe they did — maybe they were doing it on purpose.”