- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

The Department of Education paid a prominent commentator to promote the No Child Left Behind Act to fellow blacks and to give the education secretary press attention.

A company operated by syndicated columnist and commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 by the Education Department. The goal was to deliver positive messages about President Bush’s education overhaul, using Mr. Williams’ broad reach with minorities.

Tribune Media Services said late yesterday that it has dropped Mr. Williams’ weekly column after he failed to disclose his receipt of payments from the department. Mr. Williams’ column appears occasionally in The Washington Times. Times editors are reviewing the matter to decide whether the column will continue to run.

Information about the contract with Mr. Williams was first reported by USA Today.

The contract required Mr. Williams’ company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV commercials featuring one-minute “reads” by Education Secretary Rod Paige. The deal enabled Mr. Paige and other department officials to appear as guests on Mr. Williams’ programs.

Mr. Williams, one of the leading black conservative voices in the country, was to persuade other black journalists to talk about the No Child Left Behind Act.

The No Child Left Behind legislation aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children, with penalties for schools that don’t make progress.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that the decisions on the practice were made by the Education Department. He did not say whether the White House approved the practice.

The department defended its decision as a “permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures.” The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, it said.

Mr. Williams called criticism of his relationship with the department “legitimate.”

“Even though I’m not a journalist — I’m a commentator — I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn’t do it again, and I learned from it,” he said.

The deal drew criticism from Democratic congressmen.

Three Democratic senators — Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Harry Reid of Nevada — wrote to Mr. Bush yesterday to demand he recover the money paid to Mr. Williams. The lawmakers contended that “the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy.”

Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House education committee, asked for a department investigation into whether the deal was legal and ethical. He and other Democrats wrote to Mr. Bush to call for an end to “covert propaganda.”

The department’s contract with Mr. Williams, through the public relations firm Ketchum, dates to 2003 and 2004. It follows another controversy over the agency’s work.

The Bush administration has promoted No Child Left Behind with a video that comes across as a news story but does not make clear that the reporter on camera was paid with taxpayer money. The Government Accountability Office, the congressional auditing arm, is investigating those spending decisions.

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