Amid an ongoing public controversy over its leader’s spending, the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Thursday announced a major push toward greater financial responsibility.
Newly appointed HUD chief financial officer Irving Dennis said the initiative will take three to five years, and include greater oversight of department spending and improved fiscal reporting — as well as internal upgrades to the department’s aging information technology infrastructure.
“Some of the programming goes back to my college days in the late ‘70s,” Dennis, formerly a partner at the “Big Four” accounting firm Ernst & Young, said on a conference call with reporters.
The call comes during a period of heightened scrutiny about HUD’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars: Secretary Ben Carson has been under fire for the reported attempted purchase of a $31,000 dining room set for his office.
The secretary initially denied that he had any knowledge of the order until he heard the media reports, posting on Facebook that he had first attempted to have the old furniture refurbished before being told that it couldn’t be done — and that he was “as surprised as anyone” to learn about the five-figure order.
“I have requested that the order be canceled,” Carson wrote. “We will find another solution for the furniture replacement.”
But internal e-mails released earlier this week showed that both the secretary and his wife, Candy Carson, had been involved in the initial selection process. The controversy also marks the most recent in a string of seemingly lavish spending decisions from officials in the Trump administration, including Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s use of private planes for travel and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to install a $43,000 “secure phone booth” in his office.
Dennis tangentially referred to the elephant in the room at the start of the call, though he emphasized that he wasn’t involved in the decision-making process behind the dining set.
“I can’t really discuss how that happened,” he said. “I’m relatively new. I was sworn in on January 5.”
The IT modernization plan has long been a goal of public housing advocates and partners in the financial industry. For instance, a 2017 report from the Brookings Institution pointed out that HUD’s reliance on ancient software isn’t just frustrating for companies and borrowers looking for quick mortgage processing — it also makes it difficult for the department’s hiring teams, who struggle to find computer programmers fluent in languages that date back to the late 1950s.
Still, the HUD budget faces serious proposed cuts from the Trump administration, and a comprehensive overhaul of the department’s systems wouldn’t be cheap.
“There is a price tag on it, I’m sure, but I just don’t know what it is,” Dennis said. “That needs to be digested. You’re right, it’s not going to be inexpensive, but I don’t have a sense of the cost or the timeline.”
The increased financial oversight will include an upgrade of the HUD’s overall governance structure, a grant modernization initiative, and internal process improvements.
“We will approach this as any business would by increasing transparency and accountability,” Carson said in a statement. “In the end, we will also support a culture that respects the fact that HUD funds belong to the public.”
Written by Alex Spanko