GAO: Education Dept.’s PR Deal With Armstrong Williams Violated Law

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The Department of Education violated federal law regarding covert propaganda when it hired the commentator Armstrong Williams to promote its policies, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has concluded.

In a strong denunciation of an arrangement in which Mr. Williams received $240,000 in federal money, the GAO said the commentator’s work to promote the No Child Left Behind Act through his cable television show and syndicated newspaper columns, without acknowledging that he his relationship with the department, “qualifies as the production or distribution of covert propaganda.”

Earlier this year, the Education Department’s inspector general’s office had criticized the department’s agreements with Mr. Williams from 2003 and 2004, saying they raised troubling concerns regarding oversight, among other issues. But the office concluded that the contract did not break any federal laws.

The Sept. 30 opinion from the GAO, which was in response to a request for an investigation from Sens. Frank L. Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., concluded otherwise.

The GAO’s investigation found that Mr. Williams, who had his own syndicated television show and often published essays in newspaper opinion pages and provided his views on education on cable television channels such as CNN about the federal education law, did not reveal in those appearances or writings that he was under contract with the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

The arrangement between Mr. Williams and the Education Department actually fell under the department’s broad $1 million contract with Ketchum Inc, a large New York City-based public relations firm hired to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. In the deal with Mr. Williams and his Washington-based company, The Graham Williams Group, he was to provide advertising time on his conservative show “The Right Side” for NCLB messages, and opportunities for then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige and other officials to appear as guests to talk about the law. The contract also required that Mr. Williams use his influence with other media to get them to talk about the law.

“In our view, the department violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition when it issued task orders to Ketchum directing it to arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on the NCLB Act without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed to his audiences his relationship with the department,” GAO General Counsel Anthony H. Gamboa wrote in the Sept. 30 report.

Video News Release

Mr. Gamboa wrote that the Education Department must report its violation of the law to Congress and the president and submit a copy of the report to the comptroller general.

The department’s arrangement with Mr. Williams was struck during President Bush’s first term, under then-Secretary Paige. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who succeeded Mr. Paige in January, has condemned the agreement.

“We’ve been saying for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong, and ill-advised,” Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said. “Our opinion hasn’t changed.”

Ms. Spellings has since put rigorous processes in place to “ensure these missteps don’t happen again,” Ms. Aspey said.

The GAO, in a separate letter, also found that a video news release promoting free tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act also constituted covert propaganda, because the video purported to be an independent news package with no mention that it was paid for by the federal government. The reporter in the segment signed off with “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”

“The failure of an agency to identify itself as a source of a prepackaged news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the viewing audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information,” Mr. Gamboa of the GAO wrote. “The prepackaged news stories are purposefully designed to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public.”

But the GAO determined that a 2003-04 analysis of newspaper stories about the No Child Left Behind Act done by Ketchum, which rated reporters on how favorably they wrote about the law, was within the Education Department’s authority” and did not break the law on covert propaganda, Mr. Gamboa wrote.

Sen. Kennedy said in a press release that the arrangement with Mr. Williams was “another sign of the culture of corruption that pervades the White House and Republican leadership.”

He called on the department to recover the money spent on the contract from Mr. Williams.

According to a spokeswoman for the commentator, Mr. Williams is in discussions with the Education Department to return at least some of his payments.

“He has been in negotiations since the summer to return part of the money,” said Shirley E. Dave, a spokeswoman for Mr. Williams. Not all the money will be returned because some of it was spent on services Mr. Williams has provided, she said. When asked what Mr. Williams thought of the conclusions reached by the GAO, Ms. Dave said, “He doesn’t disagree with it.”

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