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Officials’ Judgment, Oversight Faulted in PR Deal With Pundit

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The U.S. Department of Education made poor management decisions and wasted taxpayer dollars, but did not violate contract law or ethics guidelines, in arranging to pay the commentator Armstrong Williams to help promote the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the agency’s internal watchdog concludes in a report released April 15.

Education Department Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. writes that the department “exercised poor judgment and oversight” in the matter. Though Mr. Williams received two government contracts worth a total of more than $250,000, the work done “most likely did not reach its intended audience,” Mr. Higgins’ report says, and the advertisements “that were produced under the work requests appear to be of poor quality, and the department has no assurance the ads received the airtime for which it paid.” To date, Mr. Williams has been paid $188,500, according to the report.

The inspector general writes that “[o]verall, we noted no violations of pertinent contract law and found no evidence of any ethical violations” in a May 2003 department contract with the New York City public relations firm Ketchum Inc. and in related work requests for Mr. Williams’ firm, the Washington-based Graham Williams Group. The department directed Ketchum to hire Mr. Williams’ firm to help with minority outreach in support of the No Child Left Behind law. That action by the department gave the appearance of circumventing procedures for awarding contracts, the report says.

Democrat's Accusations

Controversy over the hiring of Mr. Williams—a prominent conservative African-American pundit whose role in the outreach effort was revealed by USA Today in January—sparked calls by members of Congress for the inspector general’s report and for one by the Government Accountability Office, which is still investigating whether the arrangement violated a ban on covert propaganda by the government.

Last week, the story drew new attention when the ranking Democrat on the House education committee accused Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was not at the department when the arrangement with Mr. Williams was made, of threatening to block some of the information in the inspector general’s report from being released. That senior member, Rep. George Miller of California, also said the White House had not permitted some of its staff to be interviewed for the investigation. ("PR Probe Sparks Dispute Over Officials’ Cooperation," April 14, 2005.)

After Mr. Miller publicized his objections April 14, Secretary Spellings said through a spokeswoman the same day that the inspector general would release the full report with her support. In a response by Ms. Spellings included with Inspector General Higgins’ report, the secretary wrote that she welcomed its findings “because it is my strong desire to understand how this happened and to ensure it is not repeated.”

She wrote that the report “paints a very unfortunate picture of mismanagement and indicates a lack of sound judgment on several levels.” Ms. Spellings said she planned to implement the inspector general’s recommendations contained in the report, as well as others that would go further.

Rep. Miller called the report “a troubling picture of irresponsible—and potentially criminal—mismanagement of expensive contracts.”

“On page after page,” he said in a statement, “this report documents a reckless waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on unqualified people who failed to produce what they promised. …”

Appearance of ‘Circumventing Competition’

Mr. Williams, who is a commentator, a writer, and the host of his own cable-television program, was paid to provide advertising for the No Child Left Behind Act, to provide time for Education Department officials to discuss the law on his show, and to use his influence with other African-American shows and personalities to promote the law. Mr. Williams did not disclose the arrangement when he appeared on cable news outlets such as CNN or when he wrote about the law in his syndicated newspaper column.

Though the department’s $1 million contract with Ketchum Inc. was for a broad communications campaign supporting the No Child Left Behind Act—the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda—federal officials wanted to reach more directly minorities who might be most affected by the law, which has specific remedies for schools needing improvement, which often are in low-income, predominantly minority areas.

But in arranging for help with minority outreach under the Ketchum contract, the department skirted normal procedures for hiring subcontractors. Instead of relying on Ketchum to hire another company for such outreach, federal officials explicitly directed Ketchum to hire the Graham Williams Group, the inspector general’s report says. Then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige directed staff members to look at a proposal Mr. Williams made to him regarding public relations work on the NCLB law, according to the report.

The result was “the appearance of circumventing competition in contracting,” the report says, and “the department lost the opportunity to obtain Ketchum’s ‘expert advice’ on how best to conduct a minority-outreach campaign.”

In addition to advertising, Mr. Williams’ contract said he would use his long-term relationship with another cable news program, “America’s Black Forum,” to encourage producers there to talk about the No Child left Behind Act, and try to place stories and commentary on the law in African-American newspapers.

The report found that the contract had no way to measure the effectiveness of the campaign, however. Also, the audience of Mr. Williams’ show, “The Right Side,” was not the audience the department was trying to reach, the report says. In the proposal by the Graham Williams Group, the show’s audience was described as “sophisticated affluent people who surround themselves with the finer things in life.”

‘A Chain Reaction’

After the Department of Education’s arrangement involving Mr. Williams’ firm was disclosed, Secretary Paige defended the contract as legal. But President Bush condemned it and said the White House was unaware of the arrangement.

However, the April 15 report says, when some top officials in the Education Department raised concerns about the relationship, there was a consultation on the matter with David Dunn, then a special assistant to the president for domestic policy at the White House, who also had concerns. Mr. Dunn now serves as Ms. Spellings’ chief of staff. Ms. Spellings was the president's chief White House adviser for domestic policy before she succeeded Mr. Paige as secretary in January.

The report includes recommendations for improvement in the Education Department’s handling of such contracts, including making sure that the services contracted for are monitored and provided, and that the department uses performance-based contracting. Another recommendation is that the department recover, “if appropriate,” money paid to the Graham Williams Group for services that were never provided.

In her response included with the report, Ms. Spellings said that it was important to understand how the arrangement came about and noted that “the office of the secretary carries weight. When the secretary, his/her chief of staff, and other senior officers urge hint, suggest, or recommend anything, it can start a chain reaction within the building to carry out such a request. …”

Ms. Spellings also made a point of saying that “senior appointees who were responsible for this contract no longer work at the department.”

To “enhance public trust in the agency,” the secretary said that she has directed officials to go over grants and contracts to make sure they’re awarded in accordance with federal regulations; that the office of the Education Department’s general counsel is reviewing all contracts that have a public relations function; and that she has created a new position of assistant secretary for communications and outreach to better coordinate and communicate such efforts.

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