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In Ben Carson's HUD, loyalty is prized over experience, watchdogs say

In Ben Carson's HUD, loyalty is prized over experience, watchdogs say
Dr. Ben Carson, left, listens as President Trump speaks after touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington in February 2017. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded promotions and pay increases to five political operatives with no housing policy experience within their first months on the job, demonstrating what government watchdogs and career staff members describe as a premium put on loyalty over expertise.

The raises, documented in a Washington Post analysis of HUD political hires, resulted in annual salaries between $98,000 and $155,000 for the five appointees, all of whom had worked on Donald Trump's or Ben Carson's presidential campaigns. Three of them did not list bachelor's degrees on their resumes.

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The political hires were among at least 24 people without evident housing policy experience who were appointed to the best-paying political positions at HUD, an agency tasked with serving the poorest Americans. They account for a third of the 70 HUD appointees at the upper ranks of the federal government, with salaries above $94,000, according to the Washington Post review of agency records.

The limited experience at the upper reaches of the agency — HUD Secretary Carson, an acclaimed neurosurgeon, has no prior housing, executive or government background — injected confusion into the rollout of policy initiatives and brought delays to even routine functions, according to interviews with 16 current and former career staff members.

"This administration is different because the people coming in really don't know housing at all," said Ron Ashford, who retired as director of HUD's public housing supportive service programs in January after 22 years at the agency. "As a result, they're pursuing initiatives that aren't grounded in reality."

The Washington Post conducted its analysis of HUD appointees using government information on their salaries and positions through mid-March, obtained through a public records request from the Office of Personnel Management. It also examined HUD documents — including official resumes, internal emails, appointee salaries and job titles, and documentation of promotions and other position changes — obtained as of mid-July by American Oversight, a government watchdog group formed last year to investigate the Trump administration, through separate, multiple records requests as well as other publicly available information, such as LinkedIn profiles.

Under the Obama administration, senior political appointees to HUD were widely recognized housing experts who were tapped to stabilize the agency after the housing market crash. Of the 66 most highly paid appointees, at least seven — 11% — appear to have lacked housing-related experience, according to a Post review of the professional backgrounds of those named in the 2012 Plum Book, a compilation of political appointees published every four years.

Of the 24 Trump administration HUD appointees without housing policy experience on their resumes or LinkedIn profiles, 16 listed work on either Carson's or Trump's presidential campaigns — or had personal connections to their families.

They include a former event manager turned senior HUD advisor making $131,767 after a 23% raise and a former real estate agent whose new job is to advise a HUD administrator, a longtime Trump family aide who also lacks housing credentials.

HUD spokesman Raffi Williams said in a written statement to the Post that appointing people with "varying experiences to government is not unusual" and makes HUD a "more dynamic organization." The majority of top political appointees do have housing backgrounds, he noted.

"This administration has assembled a senior team at HUD with a deep well of experience in housing, community development and mortgage finance. Any suggestion to the contrary discounts their public service to the American people," Williams said. "HUD employees represent a broad array of backgrounds and experiences, as different roles have unique responsibilities and require diverse skill sets."

Brian Sullivan, another HUD spokesman, said in a phone conversation that the ranks of political appointees "change all the time" and that at least 10 of the 70 best-paid appointees included in the Washington Post analysis have left the agency.

The Washington Post laid out the scope of its analysis to the agency, which did not dispute the salaries and job titles of the individuals named in this article. HUD did not provide updated salary information or answer questions about appointees' promotions and job duties.

Scott Keller, former chief of staff to Alphonso Jackson, a HUD secretary under President George W. Bush, also defended the hirings.

"Political staffers are not expected to be subject matter experts in every case," said Keller, who had coached Carson during his confirmation hearings. "Their job is to keep the trains running on time. And they don't need to be housing policy experts to do that."

Political appointees without housing experience have driven controversial initiatives that were later put on hold by the agency or are likely to be blocked by Congress, according to former officials and other experts who work closely with the agency as well as HUD staff, most of whom spoke on the condition that they not be named because of fear of retaliation or their current business with HUD.

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In one high-profile episode, Carson unveiled a proposal in April to triple the minimum rent paid by families receiving federal housing assistance and to make it easier for local housing authorities to impose more-stringent work requirements for those receiving government benefits.

The plan was largely driven by Ben Hobbs, a special policy advisor in HUD's Office of Public and Indian Housing, according to four people with knowledge of Hobbs' role. Hobbs has no experience as a policymaker, but spent three months as a graduate fellow in "welfare studies" at the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2016 and five months as a poverty consultant at the libertarian Charles Koch Institute in 2013, according to his LinkedIn profile.

"As an ideologue, he wanted to institute his grandiose concept," said a former HUD official. "This policy was dead on arrival because it was rolled out poorly."

Hobbs' inexperience showed in his failure to build support around the policy within Congress or HUD, the former official said. Two others with direct knowledge said he neglected to secure the buy-in of career employees, even though many had a long-held goal of changing the rent structure.

By June, even Carson appeared to back off the initiative, saying that there was no longer a pressing need to raise rents after Congress reinstated Trump's proposed budget cuts.

Hobbs, who started at HUD making $79,720, took a leave from the agency in July when he was promoted to Trump's domestic-policy council, according to his LinkedIn profile. Hobbs directed all Post questions to HUD, which noted that he had also gained experience during three months as a graduate fellow on the House Ways and Means Committee in 2016. The agency added that Hobbs, who lists a master's in public policy from the London School of Economics on his profile, wrote his dissertation on the social safety net.

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The lack of experience in a chronically understaffed agency brought even routine work to a halt for much of Carson's first year at HUD because none of the appointees felt comfortable signing off on grants and technical guidance, according to career staffers.

"There's a huge learning curve getting leadership up to the point where they are willing to make a decision on something because they just don't understand the concepts," said a longtime career staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

The White House was slow to fill HUD's leadership ranks, with no nominees to eight of 13 Senate-confirmed positions for the first six months of Carson's tenure. Four nominees, including the assistant secretaries overseeing policy development and research as well as public and Indian housing, have yet to be confirmed.

"The assistant secretaries, along with the secretary, are supposed to be the ones setting policy," said David Horne, former chief of staff to Steve Preston, Bush's last HUD secretary. "The fact that they weren't confirmed as readily as in the past substantially paralyzed parts of the agency."

The White House said that the agency has been carrying out its mission effectively. "Starting with Secretary Carson, the Trump administration has assembled an experienced and well-qualified team of leaders at HUD," said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

Over the last year, the White House did appoint a number of senior officials with housing experience.

Pamela Patenaude, confirmed as deputy secretary last September, spent more than two decades in housing policy and economic development and had served as Bush's assistant secretary for community planning and development at HUD. She remains respected by career staff and housing advocates and, by many accounts, is the main administrator running the agency.

Political appointees who did not list housing policy experience on their resumes and who landed in high-paying roles include Carson's chief of staff, Andrew Hughes, a former plumbing and HVAC salesman who had also worked as a special projects coordinator at the University of Texas System's Washington lobbying shop.

Hughes, a Carson and Trump campaign worker, listed Carson as a reference on his resume. HUD would not divulge his current salary, but he was making $155,000 last December as deputy chief of staff, a 14% salary increase from his initial appointment as the agency's liaison to the White House. Hughes did not respond to multiple messages seeking requests for comment.

Keller, former HUD Secretary Jackson's chief of staff, said that Hughes' close bond with Carson, developed during his work on the campaign, makes up for his lack of housing background.

Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, said that every administration faces pressures to find positions for campaign workers.

"But every administration I've seen before this one tried to make sure that the balance was struck so that in positions that matter, you had people with the appropriate expertise and talent and backgrounds," he said.

Preston, former HUD secretary under Bush, said it's not critical for all political appointees to enter with deep housing backgrounds, as long as they are willing to seek the expertise of career staff, who he said senior appointees relied heavily upon during his time leading the agency.

"Knowing stuff doesn't mean you can get stuff done," Preston said.

HUD staffers say the administration has struggled with recruitment and has had to lower the bar for many political appointees.

"The reality is they've had a hard time finding political people who are qualified in this industry willing to come into this agency," said a longtime HUD staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

Jan writes for the Washington Post.

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