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White House furious at embarrassing stories about HUD

CNN logo CNN 3/1/2018 By Rene Marsh and Dan Merica, CNN
MIAMI, FL - APRIL 12: U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks to the media during a visit to the Liberty Square apartment complex on April 12, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Secretary Carson is on a national listening tour to hear from the people and organizations who rely on and support public housing. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) © Joe Raedle/Getty Images MIAMI, FL - APRIL 12: U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks to the media during a visit to the Liberty Square apartment complex on April 12, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Secretary Carson is on a national listening tour to hear from the people and organizations who rely on and support public housing. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Senior White House aides are furious about a series of negative stories about frivolous spending at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and have taken a more hands-on role in trying to stem the tide of negative news, sources with knowledge of the situation tell CNN.

The decision to assert more control comes a day after reports that the former chief administrative officer at HUD filed a complaint saying she demoted after refusing to spend more than was legally allowed to redecorate Secretary Ben Carson's new office.

The former staffer, Helen Foster, said she was told to "find money" beyond the legal $5,000 limit for redecorating. In one instance, she says a supervisor said that "$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair."

HUD also spent $31,000 last year to replace a dining room set in Carson's office, according to federal records and a whistleblower. A department official said that the dining set in the secretary's dining room at HUD headquarters was replaced because it was in a state of disrepair.

The sources told CNN that the stories infuriated top White House aides, who have had to deal with a sting of stories about questionable behavior and spending by Cabinet secretaries.

One source with knowledge of the situation said that those senior White House aides are angry with top officials at the housing department, but not so much at Carson, who ran against Trump during the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

A second source said that the White House was so upset with the way the HUD communications shop handled the issue that a conversation was scheduled to discuss the White House taking on a greater role in framing the response to reporters' inquiries about Carson. The idea is to stop the bleeding after incredibly unfavorable headlines about the Carsons and HUD spending.

HUD did not immediately comment for this story.

To date, the issue has stayed out of the Oval Office. Trump has yet to comment on the matter and, according to one source, the President and chief of staff John Kelly haven't been briefed about the controversy.

The Carson controversy stems from alleged requests for agency spending by the secretary's wife, Candy Carson. Foster told CNN in an exclusive interview that HUD's Acting Secretary Craig Clemmensen pulled her aside more than a month before Carson's March confirmation and said that Carson's wife wanted to "help the Secretary redecorate his office suite."

Foster said each time she was pressed to assist Carson's wife with finding the money, it was always "in the context of Mrs. Carson wants to do this. We have to find the money."

House oversight committee Chairman Trey Gowdy has also asked HUD for records relating to office furnishings since the beginning of 2017.

The Trump administration, throughout the President's first year in office, has been plagued by controversies about spending by Cabinet officials.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned in September after using a military aircraft for trips to Europe and Africa.

A recently released report from the Veterans Affairs inspector general found "serious derelictions" by Secretary David Shulkin and members of his staff during a July 2017 trip to England and Denmark, including that Shulkin's chief of staff altered an email and made false statements that led the department to pay more than $4,000 for Shulkin's wife, Merle Bari, to travel to Europe with her husband. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke faces his own inspector general investigation over travel practices, including taking charter flights to his home state of Montana.

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