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Published in Print: September 14, 2005, as Inspector General Says Ed. Dept.’s Contracts For PR Work Are Legal

Inspector General Says Ed. Dept.’s Contracts for PR Work Are Legal

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A federal review of the Department of Education’s public relations activities has found that while numerous education groups that received federal funding failed to disclose their government connections in promotional efforts, their efforts did not constitute illegal propaganda under federal law.

The report, released Sept. 1 by Education Department Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr., looks at 20 contracts and 15 grants for public relations services issued by the department between 2002 and 2004. The report concludes that none of the materials produced under the contracts or grants, such as newspaper opinion articles and television and radio commercials, met the definition of covert propaganda. But the report says the grants and contracts raised some troubling questions.

“We did not find evidence to conclude that the department awarded these grants with an intent to influence public opinion through the undisclosed use of third-party grantees,” the report says. However, the review found that materials produced under the grants and contracts often did not include disclaimers that would alert readers that the department was helping to pay for the message, as is required by federal law. In those cases, Mr. Higgins recommends that the department attempt to recoup funding.

The contracts and grants reviewed by Mr. Higgins total more than $14.7 million.

Never Again

For example, under a $677,000 Education Department grant that went in part to the National Council on Teacher Quality, its president, Kate Walsh, wrote opinion pieces on issues that included merit pay for teachers, which appeared in 13 newspapers. In each, the federal grant that was billed for her time in writing the pieces was not publicly acknowledged. Ms. Walsh said in an interview that she has since returned her Washington-based group’s funding to the department and written letters to each of the newspapers apologizing.

The Sacramento Bee, in California, published a letter to the editor by Ms. Walsh explaining the situation. David Holwerk, the paper’s editorial page editor, said he felt it was important to clarify Ms. Walsh’s work.

“In the interest of our credibility and transparency, we did that,” he said. “It’s a constant concern what kind of un-apparent entanglements people may have.”

“We made a decision never to go after a federal grant again,” Ms. Walsh said. “It leaves you open to suspicion and that’s not a good thing.”

The inspector general’s office began its review following the disclosure early this year that the commentator Armstrong Williams had received a $240,000 contract through a public relations firm hired by the department to help sway public opinion in favor of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Williams did not disclose the federal tie when writing his syndicated column about the school law or while giving his opinion on the subject on cable-television news programs. ("Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized," Jan. 19, 2005)

Following the disclosure in January of Mr. Williams’ arrangement and the controversy that followed, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, requested that the inspector general look into the department’s overall public relations efforts.

Mr. Miller was critical last week of the resulting report, saying he disagreed with the inspector general’s conclusion that the efforts did not constitute covert propaganda.

“On multiple occasions, education groups used taxpayer money—unbeknownst to taxpayers—to promote controversial federal policies,” Rep. Miller said in a Sept. 6 statement. The fact that the inspector general’s report noted that certain documents related to the department’s public relations activities could not be located highlighted incompetence at the department, according to Mr. Miller.

The report suggests changes, including educating department personnel about grant and contract requirements and more closely monitoring such partnerships by department employees. In a response included with the report, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was not in office when the reviewed contracts and grants were awarded, largely agreed with its recommendations.

Vol. 25, Issue 03, Page 32

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