Pundit probe finds nothing illegal…just stupidity

The Bush administration’s hiring of a pundit to tout its education agenda was not illegal or unethical, but it was a poor decision and continued even after concerns were raised to the White House, an internal investigation found.

The report by the Education Department’s inspector general cited a pattern of blunders that led to the $240,000 contract with conservative commentator Armstrong Williams.

Senior officials showed poor management, information didn’t get to the right people and the agency paid for work that was poorly produced, Inspector General Jack Higgins said.

The department approved $240,000 for Williams, a commentator with newspaper, television and radio audiences, to promote President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. The deal was part of a $1.3 million contract the department had with Ketchum, a public relations firm.

Williams, who is black, was hired to inform minorities about Bush’s law by producing ads with then-Education Secretary Rod Paige. Yet, records show Williams also was hired to provide media time to Paige and to persuade other blacks in the media to talk about the law.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings acknowledged “serious lapses in judgment by senior department officials” but said those directly responsible are no longer at the agency. She pledged to adopt the report’s recommendations and restore credibility to the department.

“It think this was wrong,” said Spellings, who took office in January. “I think it was stupid. I think it was ill-advised. I think it showed a lack of judgment.”

Paige, who was secretary when the contract was signed, did not reply to a telephone message Friday seeking comment.

The report also said two Education Department officials had warned the White House last summer about concerns, including the “inherent conflict” of paying a pundit to endorse the president’s education law.

David Dunn, then-special assistant to the president for domestic policy, agreed with the concerns, yet neither the White House nor the department halted the contract until it was disclosed by the news media in January. Dunn is now chief of staff to Spellings, who distanced the White House from any blame for the hiring of Williams.

The episode has proved embarrassing for the administration, which has paid at least two other conservative columnists to promote its agenda and has been criticized for distributing news videos that don’t make clear they were produced by the government.

Bush has said the hiring of Williams was wrong and that the White House did not know in advance that a pundit had been hired. Spellings said Friday that description is true.

The inspector general’s review dealt only with contract law – not whether the administration has violated a ban on covert propaganda. That is the subject of a review by congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office.

“The report paints a picture of a Bush administration that is sloppy and careless with taxpayer funds,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., added: “I commend the secretary for taking this issue seriously. Whether this activity is legal or not, it is just wrong for the administration to use taxpayer dollars for self-serving propaganda.”

Williams approached Paige about doing work for the department. His company was hired through Ketchum in late 2003 at the direction of the department despite some internal divisions about whether it was a good idea. Those divisions grew deeper.

When Williams’ contract came up for renewal in May 2004, Paige’s chief of staff and the department’s deputy director of communications raised concerns about whether money was being spent wisely – and whether there was a conflict in hiring a commentator. The concerns were so strong, the report said, that Dunn was told about them at the White House, and he agreed.

Asked Friday why the contract was not stopped at that point, Spellings defended Dunn. She said the White House assumes that the people hired to run federal agencies do so properly.

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© 2005 The Associated Press