House panel probing stimulus cash for MSNBC ads

A House panel is calling on the U.S. Department of Labor to turn over all records involving a half-million dollar contract funded through President Obama’s $831 billion stimulus program that paid for more than 100 commercials on MSNBC touting a “green jobs” initiative.

The contract with McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations LLC in 2009 resulted in more than 100 commercials on cable shows hosted by Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman to raise awareness about the Job Corps program’s training in environmentally-friendly career areas.

But spending reports showed that no jobs were created through the contract. The Washington Times first reported on the contract earlier this month, quoting one taxpayer watchdog who questioned not only the lack of jobs but why the commercials aired only on MSNBC, considered the most liberal of the major cable news outlets.

Republican leaders on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which oversees the Labor Department, are raising similar questions in a recent letter they sent to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The letter, signed by Reps. John Kline of Minnesota, chairman of the committee, and Phil Roe of Tennessee, who chairs the panel’s subcommittee on health, employment, labor and pension issues, seeks all documents and communications concerning the public relations contract, as well as a list of dates, attendees and topics for any meetings between Labor officials and the public relations firm concerning the “public relations strategy.”

“We understand this contract used taxpayer dollars purchase advertisements on MSNBC during ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann’ and ‘The Rachel Maddow Show,’” the lawmakers wrote.

“Despite the fact that these funds were made available as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — legislation President Obama said was critical for immediate job creation — an examination of public records show that the contract that resulted in the advertisements on MSNBC created no jobs.”

A spokesman for the Labor Department, Stephen Barr, said officials have received the committee’s letter and will be responding.

In an earlier statement to The Times, Labor Department officials said there was nothing political about the placement of the ads. They said research showed the advertisements would reach the target demographic of business owners and managers interested in hiring “green-trained” employees through a programming list that initially also included shows hosted by CNN’s Larry King and public television’s Jim Lehrer.

Public television was eliminated because advertising rates were too high, officials said, and Mr. King’s show was dropped because MSNBC, since renamed NBCNews.com, held the potential to reach more viewers.

The use of tax dollars on media and advertising services also came under scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers during the George W. Bush administration. In 2006, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study requested by Democrats found more than $1.6 billion in public relations and media spending by the Bush administration during a two-year span.

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