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PR Probe Sparks Dispute Over Officials’ Cooperation

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The ranking Democrat on the House education committee has accused Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings of trying to block information from being released in a report by her department’s inspector general on the agency’s controversial public relations arrangement involving the commentator Armstrong Williams.

A spokeswoman for the secretary countered that Ms. Spellings supports the release of the report as originally drafted. (The inspector general's report was released after press time April 15, on the Department of Education's Web site.)

In making his accusations April 14, Rep. George Miller of California also said that the Department of Education’s inspector general, Jack Higgins, told him during an April 12 briefing that the White House had refused to allow investigators to interview White House officials who may have information about the arrangement with the conservative pundit to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The public’s right to know is absolutely more important than any claim of privilege that the White House or the Department of Education might make,” Mr. Miller said in a press release.

Mr. Miller wrote the inspector general April 14 asking that he delay the release of his findings until the White House and the Education Department had cooperated. In two other letters sent the same day, he urged the White House to allow interviews of staff members and sought the department’s release of the full report.

After first declining to comment on Mr. Miller’s allegations, the Education Department released a statement later on April 14 saying that Ms. Spellings supported the release of the full report.

“The secretary has spent the past few days reviewing the report, and contrary to some press reports, the inspector general will be releasing it as originally drafted with the secretary’s full and complete support and cooperation,” Susan Aspey, the spokeswoman for the department, said.

The inspector general’s office refused to comment on Rep. Miller’s actions. The chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, also declined to comment.

The Bush administration and Mr. Williams came under sharp criticism after it was revealed that some $240,000 in federal money was paid to Mr. Williams last year for various efforts to promote the No Child Left Behind law, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda. The payment was part of a $1 million contract with the New York City-based public relations firm Ketchum Inc., which the department hired to promote the law. ("Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized," Jan. 19, 2005.)

Mr. Williams, a commentator with his own cable-television news show who also appeared on news programs on cnn and msnbc, provided favorable opinions on the federal law without disclosing the payment.

White House Refusal?

Though the deal with Mr. Williams was struck under Secretary Spellings’ predecessor, Rod Paige, Ms. Spellings has vowed to investigate it thoroughly.

In his press release, Rep. Miller said he met with Inspector General Higgins and members of Mr. Higgins’ staff on April 12 to discuss the contents of the draft report on the investigation.

During that meeting, according to the press release, Mr. Higgins told Mr. Miller that the secretary was considering invoking “deliberative-process privilege,” which Mr. Miller’s office said would require the inspector general’s office to delete information now in the draft report.

Elizabeth B. Meers, a partner in the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson, said the deliberative-process option allows agencies to decline to produce documents if a decision on a given matter has not yet been reached.

“The basic concept is that the agency is considering the matter, and therefore doesn’t want to release it publicly,” said Ms. Meers, who directs the firm’s education group.

In his April 14 letter to Ms. Spellings, Mr. Miller urged her not to invoke that privilege with respect to the report.

According to Rep. Miller, Mr. Higgins also said the White House had refused to allow investigators to talk with officials who might have had information about the Williams contract. President Bush has previously said that the White House was unaware of the agreement with Mr. Williams.

Also during the briefing, according to the press release, Mr. Higgins and his staff told Mr. Miller that some of the White House officials whom they were not allowed to interview had moved to the Education Department, but the inspector general did not provide any names.

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