Investigations by the Education Department and Congress are forcing the Bush administration to defend its use of a public relations company to promote the president’s schools agenda.
The department has committed at least $1.3 million to the company, including $240,000 that went to a business run by conservative commentator and columnist Armstrong Williams. He produced ads with Education Secretary Rod Paige that promoted the No Child Left Behind Act.
Williams was also hired to provide media time to Paige and to persuade other blacks in media to talk about the law, records show. Williams and Paige say the arrangement was legal; some lawmakers and media critics contend it amounted to propaganda.
On Thursday, less than a week after news of the deal became public, senators demanded department records, a Federal Communications Commission member requested an investigation, and Paige began an internal review.
Speaking about the matter for the first time, Paige apologized for “perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses.” He also said that “all of this has been reviewed and is legal.”
The government’s hiring of outside experts such as the Ketchum firm to help communicate a complex issue is common, the secretary said.
He asked that the department’s inspector general investigate to clear up any lingering questions “so that it does not burden my successor or sully the fine people and good name of this department.” Paige is leaving the Cabinet soon; President Bush has nominated a White House aide, Margaret Spellings, as his successor.
In an interview published Thursday night on USA Today’s Web site, Bush said, “The Cabinet needs to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”
“I think there needs to be a clear distinction between journalism and advocacy,” the president said. “And I appreciate the way Armstrong Williams has handled this, because he has made it very clear that he made a mistake.”
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said Paige’s statement shows that the administration is not taking the matter seriously enough. The Bush approach is “never admit your mistake, never apologize,” said Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said: “These are serious questions, and they ought to be looked into. And it appears that is happening.”
Also Thursday, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate panel that oversees education spending asked for three years of department records of public relations contracts.
Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, reminded Paige in their letter that federal law bans the use of public money on propaganda.
They want a list of any grant, contract or arrangement of public money being used “for public relations or anything similar to the purpose of the Ketchum contract” from the 2002, 2003 and 2004 budget years.
Harkin also plans to introduce a bill requiring federal agencies to report their entire advertising budgets to Congress and to make clear in their ads that public money was used.
At an FCC meeting Thursday, one commissioner said his agency had received about a dozen complaints concerning the Education Department’s arrangement with Williams.
“I certainly hope the FCC will take action and fully investigate whether any laws have been broken,” said Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat.
None of the other commissioners responded to Adelstein’s statement during the meeting. Afterward, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, and David Solomon, who heads the agency’s enforcement bureau, declined comment. Generally, the FCC reviews letters and complaints before determining if there should be an investigation.
Williams said the department hired him for a legitimate advertising campaign. But he has acknowledged that it was an “obvious conflict of interests” to accept money and then support the education law in his weekly newspaper column. A subsidiary of the Tribune Co. announced last week it was halting distribution of the column.
Williams also hosts a radio show and has appeared regularly on CNN as a commentator.
Responding to the request for an FCC investigation, Williams said neither he nor any of the stations that carried his syndicated program violated the law because the ads that aired during the show plainly stated they were paid for by the Education Department.
“I was not engaged in any public relations in this campaign. It was strictly advertising,” Williams said Thursday. “I’m not concerned about this witch hunt because I know that I’ve done nothing wrong, nothing illegal.”
The Ketchum contract has gotten the department into trouble in other ways.
The department paid for a video that looked like a real news story, but it was not clear that the reporter in the segment was hired by the government. That is the same approach that congressional investigators have said amounted to “covert propaganda” in at least two other cases.
Also, the department paid for ratings of education reporters, with points for stories that made the law, the Bush administration and the Republican Party look good.