Ben Carson has demonstrated the ability to do two things at a world-class level: perform surgical operations, and run lucrative scams. By his own admission, he is patently unqualified to run a federal agency. Nonetheless, he has accepted the job as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a policy field in which he has no experience or expertise. One might think that this background makes Carson uniquely unsuited for the role of HUD secretary. But from another, more cynical perspective, he is absolutely perfect for the job.
HUD is traditionally a magnet for scandal under Republican administrations, for two reasons. First, its mission of providing affordable housing for the urban poor is marginal, at best, to the core Republican agenda. (Jack Kemp, George H. W. Bush’s HUD secretary, is a rare exception of an activist Republican HUD secretary.) Second, the agency’s program structure lends itself naturally to profiteering. HUD works closely with private developers to build affordable housing. Without careful oversight, the agency can easily become a slush fund to distribute sweetheart contracts to the administration’s buddies.
Samuel Pierce, Ronald Reagan’s HUD secretary, turned the agency into a slush fund for cronies. Reagan’s HUD regularly handed out loans and grants on the basis of political contacts. Moderate Republican Representative Chris Shays denounced one pair of profiteers for running “a dirty, smelly, slimy business.” Ultimately, a slew of Reagan-era HUD officials were convicted, including three assistant secretaries, for such crimes as accepting illegal loans, obstructing justice, and illegal gratuities.
George W. Bush’s housing secretary, Alphonso Jackson, resigned in 2008 after a series of scandals. These included sweetheart deals and inflated salaries for his friends, threats against whistleblowers, instructing his staff to steer contracts to Bush supporters, and even stating publicly that he once denied an otherwise suitable contract because the bidder criticized Bush. “Why should I reward someone who doesn’t like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president?” said Jackson. “Logic says they don’t get the contract. That’s the way I believe.” Jackson faced investigations by HUD’s inspector general, the Department of Justice and the FBI, none of which resulted in a conviction.
There is an additional risk factor in Trump’s administration. The president is planning to continue to run his business empire in office, without disclosing his income. And so Carson, a man with no experience in government but extensive experience in the field of bilking, and a proven loyalist of Donald Trump, will apparently oversee an agency whose mission lends itself to corruption. If Trump’s priority was to ensure the most effective and efficient use of every housing dollar, Carson would make a very strange choice. But that may not be Trump’s priority at all.