Department’s ex-chief administrative officer says she was replaced by a Trump appointee and told ‘$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair’
This article titled “Housing official says she was replaced for rejecting Carson’s costly office redecoration” was written by Jon Swaine and Ben Jacobs, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 27th February 2018 10.00 UTC
A senior career official in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has alleged that she was demoted and replaced with a Donald Trump appointee after refusing to break the law by funding an expensive redecoration of Ben Carson’s office.
Helen Foster said she was told “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair” after informing her bosses this was the legal price limit for improvements to the HUD secretary’s suite at the department’s Washington headquarters.
Foster, 47, claimed that she also faced retaliation for exposing a $10m budget shortfall, and for protesting when she was barred from handling a pair of sensitive freedom of information act (FOIA) requests relating to Trump apparently because she was perceived to be a Democrat.
A copy of a complaint letter filed by Foster to a watchdog for federal employees was obtained by the Guardian. It alleges that HUD violated laws protecting whistleblowers from reprisals. Foster is seeking a public apology, compensatory damages and reinstatement as HUD’s chief administrative officer.
Trump last September nominated Suzanne Israel Tufts, a veteran Republican operative from his home county of Queens, New York, as HUD’s assistant secretary for administration, a position that Foster said subsumed her job. Foster was moved to the role of chief privacy and FOIA officer. Tufts was confirmed by the US Senate.
“This is a long-time public servant who did well at her job, and now her reputation has been ruined,” said Foster’s attorney, Joseph Kaplan, who filed the complaint to the office of special counsel (OSC) last November.
The OSC investigates allegations from civil servants of improper treatment and can prosecute or seek to settle complaints. It is not related to the justice department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller.
Foster’s complaint said that shortly before the contentious incidents, her performance had been rated “excellent” in an annual review, and that she received bonus pay worth 12% of her salary as a reward. She declined to comment for this article.
Raffi Williams, a spokesman for HUD, said in an email: “We don’t comment on pending matters of the type.” Williams referred inquiries to the OSC.
OSC communications director Jill Gerber said in an email: “We don’t comment on or confirm any pending cases.”
The complaint letter said that the day before Trump’s inauguration in January last year, Foster was asked by acting HUD director Craig Clemmensen to help Carson’s wife, Candy, obtain funds for the redecoration of her husband’s office suite. When Foster replied that there was a statutory limit of $5,000, Clemmensen allegedly told her that administrations had “always found ways around that in the past”.
When she had not relented by 10 February, Foster was repeatedly told by Clemmensen “to ‘find money’ for Mrs Carson”, according to the complaint, and that “$5,000 will not even buy a decent chair”. Foster said she complained to HUD’s budget director about being asked to break the spending limit.
Clemmensen did not respond to an email seeking comment. A spokesman for the Carsons declined to comment.
At that time, Foster oversaw HUD’s FOIA office as well as being chief administrative officer. Her complaint alleged that around 16 February, she became aware of a pair of newly received FOIA requests and was contacted by Kevin Simpson, an attorney in HUD’s office of general counsel – the department’s in-house lawyers.
Simpson told her the office of general counsel had “been asked to discreetly handle these two FOIA requests outside of the normal FOIA processes”, according to the complaint, and that this had been decided by Maren Kasper, then HUD’s liaison to the White House. The requests apparently related to Lynne Patton, a former event planner for the Trump family, who controversially was given a job at HUD.
“The information responsive to the FOIA requests reveal that Ms Patton wanted Ms Kasper fired because she was critical of President Trump,” according to Foster’s complaint. Foster said she was told by Deena Jih, another HUD attorney, that Jih had heard Foster was being sidelined because she was thought to be a Democrat.
Kaplan declined to comment on Foster’s current political identification. Public records show that she was registered as a Republican in 2003. Simpson and Jih declined to comment. Kasper did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Foster said her being sidelined was a possible attempt to break federal law, which gave her responsibility for the appropriate release of information. She said she reported the FOIA incident internally to Clemmensen, acting deputy secretary Janet Golrick and to the department’s inspector general.
She added in her complaint that after protesting, she was eventually allowed to handle the sensitive FOIA requests, but that a later department-wide FOIA training session she arranged was cancelled by Sheila Greenwood, Carson’s chief of staff.
Foster further alleged that in May last year she raised concerns to senior officials about a $10.8m hole in her department’s budget that her team had discovered, due to apparent “accounting irregularities” during 2016.
She said she reported the shortfall to David Eagles, HUD’s chief operating officer, but was told in June that “agency leadership is unwilling to report the $10.8m funding deficit” to appropriations staff, who deal with congressional approval for the department’s funding. Foster said she warned HUD’s budget staff this would be illegal. Eagles did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Following all these clashes, according to Foster’s complaint, she was told that an assistant secretary for administration was to be inserted above her in the HUD hierarchy. The position had existed under George W Bush but was left unfilled during Barack Obama’s administration.
Foster was eventually reassigned in July 2017, but was not sent a job description for her new role until October. That document, she said, stated her job title, pay grade, and nothing else.
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