PR Contract Remains Under Scrutiny

By Michelle R. Davis — January 25, 2005 3 min read
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The fallout from the Department of Education’s public relations arrangement with the commentator Armstrong Williams briefly threatened last week to derail the confirmation of Margaret Spellings as secretary of education, as a senator placed a hold on the process. But the senator then lifted it—and Ms. Spellings was confirmed—after assurances the matter was being taken seriously.

The issue of a payment of some $240,000 to Mr. Williams for various efforts to promote the No Child Left Behind Act had prompted Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., to block action on Ms. Spellings’ nomination. Senators can obstruct a confirmation vote by placing what is usually an anonymous “hold” on the nominee.

On Jan. 19, Sen. Lautenberg removed the hold, but only after Ms. Spellings had called and promised that she would sit down with him in his office to “discuss with him their plans to make sure nothing like this happens again,” said Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for Mr. Lautenberg.

Ms. Spellings was ultimately confirmed Jan. 20. (“Senate Confirms Spellings as 8th Secretary of Education,” this issue.)

But the hold on the nomination was one of a number of after-effects of the revelation that under a $1 million contract between the Education Department and Ketchum Inc., a leading public relations firm based in New York City, Mr. Williams was paid as a subcontractor to tout the No Child Left Behind Act. He did not disclose the arrangement when he wrote about the issue in his syndicated newspaper column or when he proffered his opinions on cable TV news shows.

The nearly quarter-million-dollar contract with Mr. Williams went for, among other purposes, ads on his syndicated television show, “The Right Side with Armstrong Williams,” and for the prominent African-American pundit to use his influence for minority outreach on the No Child Left Behind Act. (“Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized,” Jan. 19, 2005.)

FCC Launches Probe

In addition to calls for inquiries by members of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it, too, would look into the matter to see if the payment to Mr. Williams and his failure to disclose it broke any laws. On Jan. 14, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell announced an investigation into Mr. Williams as well as into a Niagara Falls, N.Y., television station that aired his program.

The Education Department’s inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, have also been asked to investigate the arrangement.

Last week, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked the GAO to look into whether other federal agencies have had similar arrangements with commentators. Ketchum officials also released a statement last week apologizing for the situation, calling it a “lapse in judgment.”

Sen. Lautenberg, along with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader, also urged President Bush to remove Mr. Williams from a position on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, a program that places special assistants to high-level federal officials. He’s been on the commission since last year.

The Education Department has defended the contract with Mr. Williams, even as President Bush said he had concerns with it. Outgoing Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement that the arrangement was legal, though he said he was “sorry that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses.”

The department has refused to discuss the matter aside from Mr. Paige’s Jan. 13 statement and an earlier statement issued shortly after the arrangement was revealed by USA Today on Jan. 7.

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as PR Contract Remains Under Scrutiny


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