HUD Employee Calls Out Ben Carson: We Have ‘Operated In Fear’ Of Retribution

Yale alumnus Dr. Benjamin Carson, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, spoke at YaleThursday, Dec. 8 as a guest of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)
Stephen Dunn/FR171426 AP

An employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has accused Secretary Ben Carson of carrying out a “witch-hunt” and “smear campaign” against a whistleblower in the department, and said other HUD employees have “operated in fear” of similar retribution.  

“It was her job to be the conscience of HUD and ask the tough questions,” HUD employee Marcus Smallwood said of Helen Foster, another employee in the department who alleges she was punished for objecting to a $31,000 dining room set that had been ordered for Carson’s office, and for raising concerns about the mishandling of a politically-sensitive FOIA request. (Read Smallwood’s full letter, supplied to TPM by Foster’s lawyer, Joseph Kaplan, below.) 

A spokesperson for HUD, Raffi Williams, did not respond to TPM’s request for comment. He told Politico, which first reported on the letter, “HUD has not officially commented on any of Ms. Foster’s allegations. Ms. Foster has a pending case against the Department. The agency has a policy of not commenting on pending cases.”

After media scrutiny, HUD announced that Carson had directed the department to cancel the dining set order. Now, the House Oversight Committee has requested HUD’s records relating to Foster, as well as those regarding the “redecorating, furnishing, or equipping” of the secretary’s office.

In his letter, Smallwood said he lacked confidence that HUD could sufficiently answer the committee’s evidence requests “because there has been a concerted effort to stop email traffic regarding these matters.”

Williams told Politico that the committee “will receive a complete response to their query. We can assure you that email traffic at HUD did not cease on August 1st.”

In a Facebook post responding to the dining set scandal, following HUD’s announcement that the order would be cancelled, Ben and Candy Carson said “the character attacks on us have increased in an attempt to claim that a scandal has occurred.”

Read Smallwood’s letter in full below:

Secretary Carson,

Last week you tweeted from your personal account that Helen Foster’s claims were “unsubstantiated”.  You essentially called a whistle blower a liar not 24 hours after the story broke.  A week has gone by and it is now very clear that Helen Foster was not lying about the furniture purchases.

I have seen nothing from HUD to defend her as a whistle blower with regards to the furniture purchase.  Nothing which speaks to defending her questioning whether a Security System should have been installed at tax payer expense in your personal residence. Nothing to address why undue influence was placed on Helen, and myself to process FOIA request of a political nature in a fashion different from the normal process.  I was directed by Craig Clemmensen (verbally) to approve overtime for employees to process those FOIA request before the end of the day.

Helen Foster is not the only person at HUD that has been persecuted in this witch-hunt under your watch.  She is the only person who has been brave enough to stand on principle and put her career, reputation, and livelihood on the line. The rest of us have operated in fear.  I have had my subordinates and peers also suffer from retribution as leadership has run this campaign against Helen.  Neither I nor any of my over 30 subordinates have performance plans in place for FY 2018, because they are being held up by leadership (Paula Lincoln).  I have several employees who have not had their performance evaluations for FY 2019 because the are being held up by Helen’s replacement.  Originally, I was told there was “glitch” in the system. Most of my harassment has occurred verbally, as Helen’s replacement consistently did not email me or respond to my emails (See Aug 27th email).

As you can see from the attached emails, I have participated in the silencing of employees trying to protect them from the malicious activities of senior leadership at HUD (see July 26th email).

Multiple employees and/or new hires had job selections withdrawn after accepting verbal offers for no other reason (that I can see), then that they were or would become subordinates of Helen.  These were selections vetted and approved by the OCFO and OCHCO at the highest levels.  I was repeatedly told by my new supervisor that the new hires/promotions were being processed until after continual pressure I was told they would not.  I was directed on multiple occasions not to document via email and to “be careful” of who I cc’d when corresponded concerning matters in the Executive Secretariat and its impact on the department (see Sept 7th email).

This has compromised HUD in its’ ability to ensure the protection of citizen personally identifiable information such as social security numbers and banking information.  We are not capable of trustingly responding to the attached congressional inquiry because Helen was and still is our Senior Agency Official for Records Management.  She was our Senior Agency Official for FOIA.  It was her job to be conscience of HUD and ask the tough questions and when she did that, she was not just demoted two levels (she was essentially moved from being over me to under me), she was blocked from other job opportunities at every turn because of the smear campaign that was conducted to prevent her from working in government.

My office was subjected to a “management inquiry” performed by the Departmental Enforcement Center (DEC), headed by Craig Clemmensen.  While this investigation was conducted in November, we still have not seen any results or report regarding the findings.

I’ve known Helen for approximately five years and she believes in the Constitution, she believes in HUD’s mission, and she believes in the law.

As the Departmental Records Officer I’m obligated by law to report to you that I do not have confidence that HUD can truthfully provide the evidence being requested by the House Oversight Committee because there has been a concerted effort to stop email traffic regarding these matters prior to August 1st.  I recommend that we search emails going back to Dec 1st of 2016 to answer the first request.  I also am obligated to inform you that the retention for procurement related records is 7 yrs.  We should not expect to find records dating back to 1998, unless we have not been disposing of records in accordance with the law.   It would probably be more prudent to provide HOGR with the records related to inventory of furniture stored in the sub-basement.  Departmental Records Officer is not the position I was hired to fill, see my attached Position Description, but rather the position I have been relegated to, since Helen was ousted. I was eventually replaced as the Director of the Executive Secretariat, however my replacement, your Senior Advisor, was not made aware of the reporting structure or that I was directed to no longer manage Correspondence, FOIA, or Privacy. So those offices went through two weeks of confusion with no leadership.  Correspondence and Privacy still do not have Branch Chiefs (after well over a year) and Privacy does not have a true experience subject matter expert serving as the Privacy Officer.

1)      When are you going to apologize to Helen?

2)      When are you going to reinstate her?

3)      When will you make a public statement that all employees at HUD should feel free to follow the law, ask when they are unsure, and not fear retribution?

4)      I feel this should come from you directly, as you have now participated in the smear campaign against Ms Foster with your tweet.

As your former Director of the Executive Secretariat, and your current Records Officer, I do think a written response directly from you is appropriate.

Marcus Smallwood, CRM

Director of Records & Information Management

Office of Administration

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development