Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson reportedly ignored the advice of his own lawyers when he had his son help with a “listening tour” event in June.
The Washington Post obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showing calls between Carson and Linda M. Cruciani, HUD’s deputy general counsel for operations.
Cruciani repeatedly warned Carson about the appearance of ethics violations, since his son, a local businessman, appeared to be inviting people to the event that he had business ties with.
“I expressed my concern that this gave the appearance that the Secretary may be using his position for his son’s private gain,” Cruciani wrote in a July 6 memo.
In a meeting on June 26, Cruciani wrote, Carson said keeping his son out of the event would be “difficult” because he was a big employer.
“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.”
But, Cruciani said, she left the meeting ultimately thinking that Carson’s son would only attend some health care events.
But at the listening tour, Carson’s wife, Candy Carson, son Carson Jr. and daughter-in-law Merlynn Carson went to several events. The Post cited an anonymous source saying that Carson’s family members even went to a closed-door meeting with officials discussing housing policy.
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On Tuesday, Carson denied that his family was influencing him in his position. In his statement, he described the tour as an event meant 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.”
But Guillermo Mayer, a public advocacy lawyer and leader of Carson Watch, called out the report as showing a concerning ethical issue.
“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.