Friday, September 30, 2005

The Education Department broke the law and engaged in “covert propaganda” when it paid conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams to promote President Bush’s education agenda, the Government Accountability Office ruled yesterday.

“We find that the department contracted for Armstrong Williams to comment regularly on the No Child Left Behind Act without assuring that the department’s role was disclosed to targeted audiences,” wrote Anthony H. Gamboa, the GAO’s general counsel, in a report.

“This violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition for fiscal year 2004 because it amounted to covert propaganda.”

The Democratic senators who requested the ruling, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, demanded that the Education Department try to recover the money spent.

“The Bush administration took taxpayer funds that should have gone towards helping kids learn and diverted it to a political propaganda campaign,” Mr. Lautenberg said. “The administration needs to return these funds to the Treasury. Parents want education funds to go to our nation’s schools, not political operatives and journalists-for-hire. The administration gets an F for treating education funds responsibly.”

Susan Aspey, the Education Department’s spokeswoman, said that the department has changed its procedures.

“We’ve said for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong and ill-advised. There’s nothing in today’s action that changes our opinion. Under Secretary [Margaret] Spellings’ leadership, stringent processes have been instituted to ensure these types of missteps don’t happen again,” she said.

Shirley Daze, Mr. Armstrong’s spokeswoman, said he would have no comment because she had just downloaded a copy of the report yesterday afternoon and had not studied it.

Mr. Kennedy tied the issue to a “culture of corruption” he said surrounds Republicans.

Mr. Williams approached the Department of Education, then under Secretary Rod Paige, and offered to promote the president’s education agenda for less than he would normally charge because he believed in the policy.

The department then directed Ketchum, a public relations firm, to contract with Mr. Williams’ company, the Graham Williams Group, to do a six-month minority outreach campaign on No Child Left Behind. The contract was later renewed for six more months.

The department spent $186,000 for Mr. Williams’ work and another $2,543 went to Ketchum as overhead for the contract.

Education Department officials told the GAO they didn’t violate the law because they thought they were only asking Mr. Armstrong to make television and radio ads.

But the GAO said the work order specifically calls for Mr. Armstrong “to regularly comment” on No Child Left Behind, and it was clear Mr. Williams thought he was being paid to comment favorably on administration policy. Also, the GAO said the department never told him to disclose he was being paid.

The GAO report said that the Federal Communications Commission is also checking to see if Mr. Williams’ ad campaign violated any laws under its jurisdiction.

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