Newly obtained documents show the extensive involvement that family members of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, especially his son, Benjamin Jr., play in official business, despite strong warnings from agency lawyers.
The documents show that Carson Jr., who is not a federal employee, continued to play a significant role in his father's agency, including but not limited to organizing Carson's 2017 "listening tour" in Baltimore. Yet department lawyers told the secretary directly last summer that Carson Jr.'s involvement could violate federal ethics rules or give the appearance that the secretary was using his office for his son's private gain.
Carson said in a statement that he was asking the department's inspector general to look into the issue.
"My goal in Baltimore was to listen and help the people of Baltimore have access to safe affordable housing," the statement read. "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. From my very first day at HUD I have insisted that HUD operate in an open and ethical manner, in every way. To clear up any suspicion I am calling for the HUD Inspector General to review this matter."
The extensive role that Carson Jr. played in organizing the Baltimore trip was detailed in a Washington Post report.
The documents, obtained by the Democratic-leaning nonprofit American Oversight under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with CNN, show that the influence of Carson Jr. and his wife Merlynn goes far beyond orchestrating his father's Baltimore tour.
Internal HUD emails show meetings scheduled for Carson Jr. by HUD staff, including a May 25, 2017 scheduled meeting with "Ben Jr. and friends" in the secretary's dining room. Three months later, on August 15, HUD aide and longtime Trump associate Lynne Patton scheduled a "Dinner w/BJ & friends" to take place at DelMonico's Kitchen, even though Carson Jr. does not work for the agency.
The emails also suggest that Candy Carson, Ben Carson's wife, pushed for her son to meet with at least one Cabinet-level official. In May 2017, Sheila Greenwood, Carson's chief of staff, reached out to another HUD staffer regarding a meeting between Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Carson Jr., a meeting suggested by Candy Carson. Greenwood gave the HUD staffer the email address of Chao's chief of staff, saying that the person "would be able to connect BJ and the Secretary should you choose to pursue."
The exchange appeared to give Carson Jr.'s access to a top-level official whose agency oversees an area relevant to his business interests. It is unclear whether Carson Jr. contacted Chao.
Carson Jr. is the chairman of Argo Systems LLC in Hanover, Maryland, a construction and engineering services firm. He is also the co-founder and partner of the Columbia, Maryland, based Interprise Partners, which according to the company's website focuses on "technologies and services related to Critical Infrastructure, Healthcare and Workforce Development."
Carson Jr. did not respond to CNN's request for comment. HUD's Inspector General also declined to comment and would not confirm or deny whether it was looking into Carson.
"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," Carson told The Washington Post on Tuesday. "My family, or people with relationships with my family, have never influenced any decision at HUD."
"Nepotism is still nepotism even without a paycheck," American Oversight said in a statement."From Ivanka and Jared to Lola Zinke and Ben Carson Jr., the Trump administration has sadly abandoned the principle that government officials should not put their own family members into positions of influence."
The emails shed new light on how extensive Carson Jr.'s role was in planning the secretary's 2017 Baltimore trip.
The emails show Carson Jr. worked to connect private sector companies with a small group of HUD officials. In many of the emails, it is clear that Carson Jr. identified the companies and recommended them to HUD directly -- even though he does not work for the agency. In at least one case, he asked a business associate -- Mark Powell, the chief associate of Argo Systems -- to extend an invitation to a prominent Baltimore CEO.
On June 15, 2017, Powell wrote to Calvin Butler, the CEO of Baltimore Gas and Electric, saying that Carson Jr. who he identifies as a business partner "asked if I could extend an invitation to you or one of your senior team members to join secretary Carson for the official Baltimore HUD tour."
"If you would like to participate, I can connect you or a designee to the point of contact at HUD to coordinate," Powell wrote. Later, he added that Exelon/BGE participation "would certainly add value to this event and all parties would benefit."
In a later email Carson Jr. connected Butler's chief of staff at BGE and Mike Abboud, a staffer in Butler's office, with Lynne Patton at HUD.
"If you have a couple times that would be convenient for a call over the next couple days to discuss the tour agenda, I am sure that we can accommodate your schedule," Carson Jr. said in the June 17, 2017 email.
Carson Jr. is also suggested as an attendee of a lunch with Baltimore's mayor, Catherine Pugh, along with his wife, Merlynn and mother, Candy.
Carson Jr. even worked to smooth over things with disgruntled members of the community. Before the Baltimore trip, William H. Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., emailed Carson Jr. to complain that the Park Heights area in northwest Baltimore had been "completely left out."
"You may be the only one who can figure out how to get the Secretary and some collection of City stakeholders to do the very necessary tour of Park Heights/Pimlico," Cole wrote to Carson on June 23, 2017.
While Carson Jr. may not have been ill-intentioned, his actions drew the attention of some HUD employees and the agency's general counsel's office.
In a two-page memo on July 6, 2017, Linda M. Cruciani, HUD's deputy general counsel for operations, wrote that in mid-June two HUD staffers -- Mason Alexander and Patton -- raised concerns that more than a half-dozen participants in the Baltimore tour had been invited by Carson Jr. and his wife, and that they were concerned that the couple "may be doing business with these entities or may be interested in doing business with these entities." At that point, Cruciani said she expressed concerns that their inclusion gave the appearance that the secretary may be using his position "for his son's private gain."
She and other department counsel had a call with Carson Jr. according to the memo, regarding the participation of him and other business associates in the call.
Carson Jr., Cruciani wrote, said that his father had asked for his assistance in planning the tour and that he works with "almost everyone who works in Baltimore." According to Cruciani, Carson Jr. explained that "nothing we would do would be near a conflict" and that "we don't mix and match parties."
After that call, Cruciani followed up with Carson Jr. by email on their discussion about the "government-wide standards of ethical conduct for employees of the executive branch," according to the documents, citing two specific regulations at Carson's request.
One of the two regulations relayed by Cruciani says that an executive branch employee "shall not use his public office for the private gain of relatives." A second noted that employees should "endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating the law or the ethical standards."
In the memo, first reported by the Post, Cruciani also wrote that she and another department lawyer briefed Secretary Carson the same day, and "advised the Secretary not to include Ben Carson Jr. in the Listening Tour." Carson said, according to Cruciani's memo, that it would be difficult to hold the tour without Carson Jr.'s involvement, "as his son was the largest employer in Maryland."
At the point that she left the meeting, she said she believed that Carson Jr. would not participate in the Baltimore tour, with the "possible exception of the Health Fair."
A HUD spokesman, however, told the Post that Carson Jr.'s, involvement went further than one event.