Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Tuesday appeared to think that a freshman Democrat was questioning him about Oreo cookies during his congressional testimony, when she was in fact asking him about foreclosure properties.

Larry French/Getty Images via CNN

A lawmaker asked Carson about foreclosure properties. He thought she was talking about Oreos.

May 21, 2019 - 8:04 pm
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By Caroline Kelly, CNN

(CNN) -- Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Tuesday appeared to think that a freshman Democrat was questioning him about Oreo cookies during his congressional testimony, when she was in fact asking him about foreclosure properties.

Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat, asked Carson about real estate owned properties -- or REOs, properties that fail to sell at foreclosure auctions -- during his testimony before the House Financial Services Committee.

"I'd also like you to get back to me if you don't mind to explain the disparity in REO rates," Porter said to Carson. "Do you know what an REO is?"

Carson replied, "An Oreo?"

"No, not an Oreo," Porter said. "An R-E-O. REO."

Carson responded, "Real estate ..." before pausing.

Porter asked, "what's the O stand for?," to which Carson answered, "organization."

Porter replied, "Owned, real estate owned. That's what happens when a property goes to foreclosure, we call it an R-E-O."

The hearing comes less than a week after the Government Accountability Office wrote in a letter to Congress that HUD broke the law when it spent about $40,000 in 2017 for a new dining set and dishwasher for Carson's office. Under law, federal employees are prohibited from spending in excess of an appropriation and an agency is restricted under law from spending more than $5,000 to furnish or redecorate an office without notifying Congress.

Porter alleged that HUD's Federal Housing Authority had more REOs than did government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs. According to HUD's 2018 report, foreclosures represented 31.90% of the agency's asset sales.

"FHA loans have much higher REOs -- that is they go to foreclosure rather than to loss mitigation or to non-foreclosure alternatives like shortsales -- than comparable loans at the GSEs," Porter said. "So I'd like to know why we're having more foreclosures that end in people losing their homes with stains to their credit and disruption to their communities and their neighborhoods at FHA than we are at the GSEs."

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The exchange was also another example of Porter's incisive questioning and economic acumen. Last month, she stumped multimillionaire JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon with questions about a hypothetical JPMorgan Chase employee -- making a fraction of what the company's top executives are paid -- who is running a $567 deficit each month because her salary is insufficient to cover basic expenses.

After the hearing, Carson tweeted a photo of himself holding a package of Oreos and a photo with the package and a note that read: "To Rep. Porter, Thanks for your part in today's hearing. Hope you like these O'REO(s)."

"OH, REO! Thanks, @RepKatiePorter. Enjoying a few post-hearing snacks. Sending some your way!" Carson tweeted alongside the pictures.

Carson attempts to reclaim his time

In another bizarre incident during the hearing, Carson attempted to reclaim his time -- a procedure used by lawmakers to moderate witnesses during their allotted questioning time in congressional hearings.

After being asked a series of yes or no questions by freshman Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts on the health risks of sub-par housing on tenants, Carson first said, "Yes or no, can you ask me some questions yourself and stop reading this line of stuff."

After Pressley reclaimed her time and continued to reiterate the question, Carson said, "Reclaiming my time," to which Presley responded, "You don't get to do that."

"Oh," Carson said.

Carson won't say if he'd let his grandmother live in public housing

Carson later declined to answer Pressley's questions about whether poor tenants -- or his own grandmother -- should live in inadequate public housing.

After recounting a story about a constituent family living in an apartment plagued by mold, Pressley asked Carson whether they "deserve deserve to live in these conditions because they are poor?"

Tensions flared, as Carson said, "If you've listened to anything that I have to say then you know very well my views on this" while Pressley repeatedly asked, "Would you let your grandmother live in public housing?"

"Under your watch, at your helm, would you allow your grandmother to live in public housing? Under these conditions?" she asked.

He replied, "It would be very nice if you would stop acting--" but did not answer before Pressley's time expired.

Carson tells congresswoman to do her job

Carson also bashed Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia and other members of Congress for not "doing your job" to address the issue of undocumented immigration.

Garcia asked Carson about his agency's proposed rule to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to access affordable housing, even in "mixed status" families comprised of individuals of different legal statuses.

"Alright, so you're going to shift 55,000 children from being with their families to then to a homeless status," she said. "What's going to happen with these children? Have you thought this program through?"

Carson replied, "Well, maybe what will happen with them is that you and Congress will do your job and solve the problem."

Garcia responded, "Well, sir, it is your problem now and it is your solution to try to do this mixed status rule. I'm asking if you've thought this through."

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