The Department of Education made a mistake when it agreed to a public relations arrangement with commentator Armstrong Williams, President Bush said last week. He also said the White House did not know about the arrangement.
The Bush administration and Mr. Williams have come under sharp criticism stemming from the payment of some $240,000 in federal money to Mr. Williams for various efforts to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. (“PR Contract Remains Under Scrutiny,” Jan. 26, 2005.)
“I expect my Cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward,” Mr. Bush said during a Jan. 26 press conference. “There needs to be independence. And Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake. And we didn’t know about this in the White House, and there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press.”
When a reporter pressed the president on whether the Education Department had made a mistake, he said: “Yes, they did.”
He was then asked what would happen to those responsible for the decision.
“We’ve got new leadership going to the Department of Education,” he replied. “But all our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.”
The president had said earlier last month that he had “serious concerns” about the arrangement with Mr. Williams. But his Jan. 26 remarks were more forceful, and seemed at odds with the stance taken by Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a statement issued on Jan. 13, just days before Margaret Spellings succeeded him.
“All of this has been reviewed and is legal,” Mr. Paige said in his statement, which came about a week after the public relations contract was disclosed.
The matter is being investigated by the department’s inspector general, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog arm. The Education Department declined further comment last week.
The payment to Mr. Williams, first reported by USA Today, was part of a $1 million contract between the department and the public relations firm Ketchum Inc. Mr. Williams was paid for ads on his syndicated TV show, but also to promote the No Child Left Behind law in his own media appearances. He did not disclose the arrangement in his syndicated newspaper column or when he expressed his opinions on cable TV news shows.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Bush Critical of Education Department on PR Contract