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HUD lawyers warned Ben Carson risked ethics rules violation by enlisting son

| Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, 11:00 p.m.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson allowed his son to help organize a “listening tour” in Baltimore last summer despite warnings from department lawyers that doing so risked violating federal ethics rules, according to internal documents and people familiar with the matter.
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Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson allowed his son to help organize a “listening tour” in Baltimore last summer despite warnings from department lawyers that doing so risked violating federal ethics rules, according to internal documents and people familiar with the matter.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson allowed his son to help organize a “listening tour” in Baltimore last summer despite warnings from department lawyers that doing so risked violating federal ethics rules, according to internal documents and people familiar with the matter.

In the days before the event in late June, career officials and political appointees raised concerns that Carson's son, local businessman Ben Carson Jr., and daughter-in-law were inviting people with whom they potentially had business dealings, the documents show.

“I expressed my concern that this gave the appearance that the Secretary may be using his position for his son's private gain,” Linda Cruciani, HUD's deputy general counsel for operations, wrote in a July 6 memo, describing her reaction upon learning of Carson's Jr.'s involvement from other staff members.

The two-page memo, obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, details conference calls and meetings Cruciani and her colleagues had with Carson, his son and other senior HUD officials to urge that Carson Jr. not be involved in the listening tour, an event aimed in part to gathering input from local business leaders.

The high-level meetings surrounding the Baltimore event highlight the extent to which Carson has relied on close family members since joining the Cabinet. His wife, Candy Carson, son Carson Jr. and daughter-in-law Merlynn Carson have attended some of his official meetings, according to current and former HUD officials.

Cruciani wrote that, in a meeting on June 26, two days before the event was to begin, Carson initially said “it would be difficult” to have a listening tour in Baltimore without his son's involvement because Carson Jr. is a large employer. Even so, Cruciani wrote, she and her colleagues left believing that Carson Jr. would not be involved in the two-day tour, with the possible exception of an event about health care.

Yet Candy Carson, Carson Jr. and Merlynn Carson attended multiple events during the Baltimore tour, including ones open to the news media and a closed-door session on housing policy with state and city officials along with HUD employees, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Jereon Brown, a HUD spokesperson, confirmed that Carson Jr.'s role was not limited to the health-care discussion. He said no one was dropped from the list of invitees. He did not respond to questions about what steps, if any, the secretary took to address the ethics warnings department lawyers raised.

In a statement Tuesday, Carson said his goal in conducting the tour was to “help the people of Baltimore have access to safe affordable housing.”

“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. “My family, or people with relationships with my family, have never influenced any decision at HUD.”

In an interview in early January, Carson dismissed news reports that his family was involved in HUD business. “They can FOIA everything, and they have been,” he said. “There's nothing to find. It's ridiculous.”

Carson Jr. did not respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment. Cruciani did not return a call seeking comment, referring the matter to HUD's press office.

Guillermo Mayer, a public advocacy lawyer who helps lead Carson Watch, a group critical of the secretary, questioned why the Carsons went ahead with last year's event. “It's deeply troubling that Secretary Carson would ignore ethics guidance from his own HUD attorneys and opt to mix family business interests with his official duties,” Mayer said.

The event in Baltimore, a stop on a national listening tour, aimed to solicit input from local leaders, medical professionals and philanthropists. Carson also used the visit to announce $127 million in grants for lead abatement programs nationwide.

On June 14, Cruciani wrote, HUD officials Mason Alexander and Lynne Patton — both Trump administration political appointees — raised concerns that Carson Jr. and his wife had asked that more than half a dozen people be invited to the Baltimore events. The list included Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank; Abell Foundation President Robert Embry Jr.; Genesis Rehab Services co-chief operating officer Dan Hirschfeld; Teresa Carlson, vice president of worldwide public sector at Amazon Web Services; former Enterprise Foundation chairman Frederick “Bart” Harvey III; and members of the Paterakis family, which owns a major real estate development and bakery business in Baltimore.

Patton said Carson Jr. and his wife “may be doing business with these entities or may be interested in doing business with these entities,” Cruciani wrote.

When contacted this week, several of the guests said that they had been invited but had no business relationship with Carson Jr. A spokesperson for Plank said he declined the invitation.

The officials also told Cruciani that Carson Jr. and his wife asked that Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, be invited.

A little less than three months later, according to federal records, CMS awarded a $485,000 contract to the consulting company Myriddian, whose chief executive is Merylnn Carson. Carson Jr. identifies himself online as one of Myriddian's board members. The contract, for administrative services, was awarded without a competitive bidding process, federal records show, though a CMS official said multiple minority-owned firms were interviewed.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the contract was for career development services for the agency's large contacting staff. He added that Verma did not attend the Baltimore event and said CMS has no record of her receiving an invitation.

On June 23, according to the memo, Cruciani met with Alexander and Beth Zorc, then HUD's acting counsel, to discuss concerns that “Ben Carson Jr. continued to be involved” in the planning and that some of his business associates would be present.

As chairman of Interprise Partners, based in Columbia, Maryland, Carson Jr. serves on the board of four Interprise companies, according to the firm's website. The firm specializes in infrastructure, health care and workforce development.

HUD lawyers and top officials agreed to a teleconference with Carson Jr. on June 26, the memo states, two days before the event was to begin.

On the call, Cruciani wrote, Carson Jr. said that “he had invited associates ‘who work with us but (who) advance HUD initiatives'” and that it was “helpful for us to get the right people in the room” to establish privately funded community centers the secretary has dubbed “EnVision Centers.” The initiative aims to help HUD-assisted households achieve self-sufficiency by offering career counseling and training at centers sponsored by local groups but certified by federal officials.

Carson Jr. said that “nothing we would do would be near a conflict” but he emphasized his desire to “help his father ask the right questions” and ensure that there was follow-up on what attendees might say to the secretary, Cruciani wrote.

“I explained that he might have staffed his father during the campaign this way, but that the follow-up from official meetings would be the responsibility of HUD staff,” Cruciani wrote.

At Carson Jr.'s request, Cruciani sent him a primer on federal ethics laws under the header, “Misuse of Position: Regulations applying to SOHUD,” shorthand for secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Carson Jr. told Cruciani that he did not want to create unnecessary concern and that he would speak to his father, Cruciani wrote.

Later that day, Cruciani, Alexander and Zorc discussed the matter with the secretary themselves.

“The Secretary said that it was difficult to have a Listening Tour in Baltimore without his son's involvement as his son was the largest employer in Maryland,” Cruciani wrote. “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.”

Although Carson repeated that claim during his interview with The Post in early January, Carson Jr.'s account of his business suggests that he ranks well below Maryland's largest employer. He told HUD lawyers that he has “three law firms and 2,600 employees,” the memo states.

There are six state employers with at least 5,000 employees or more, according to a state database, and 29 with at least 2,500.

Brown, the HUD spokesperson, said Carson was speaking as “a proud father” and realizes that there are bigger employers in Maryland.

Carson's immediate family made its mark at HUD during the first months of the Trump administration.

Carson Jr. showed up on email chains within the department and often appeared at its headquarters, said a former HUD official who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Candy Carson also accompanied her husband around the building and to official meetings both inside and outside of HUD early last year, multiple agency officials said. At the secretary's first address to department employees, the couple was invited to the stage amid a backdrop welcoming them “to the HUD family.”

In the interview with The Post, Carson said his wife played no role in shaping department policy. “I rely on her as my life partner and the person that I enjoy being with most of all in the world,” he said.

As recently as last fall, Carson Jr. appeared at official events with his father. In late October, the HUD secretary toured Baltimore's Helping Up Mission, a faith-based group that helps men facing addiction and homelessness. Flanked in the audience by Candy Carson, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, D, and other Maryland officials, Carson praised “Americans who care about their fellow Americans.”

“This is not a big-government program,” Carson, a former neurosurgeon at the city's Johns Hopkins University, said in a speech to Helping Up graduates. “This is a program of people who reached out — out of their heart -— and said, ‘That is my brother, and I have an obligation to take care of him.'”

Between applause, Carson Jr. walked in. As his father fielded questions from the group, he stood near the back of the room, greeting some of the guests with a smile.

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