PR Probe Sparks Dispute Over Officials’ Cooperation

By Michelle R. Davis — April 19, 2005 3 min read

The ranking Democrat on the House education committee accused Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last week of trying to block information from being released in a report by her department’s inspector general on the agency’s controversial public relations arrangement involving the commentator Armstrong Williams.

A spokeswoman for the secretary countered that Ms. Spellings supports the release of the report as originally drafted.

In making his accusations April 14, Rep. George Miller of California also said that the Department of Education’s inspector general, Jack Higgins, told him during an April 12 briefing that the White House had refused to allow investigators to interview White House officials who may have information about the arrangement with the conservative pundit to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The public’s right to know is absolutely more important than any claim of privilege that the White House or the Department of Education might make,” Mr. Miller said in a press release.

Mr. Miller wrote the inspector general April 14 asking that he delay the release of his findings until the White House and the Education Department had cooperated. In two other letters sent the same day, he urged the White House to allow interviews of staff members and sought the department’s release of the full report.

After first declining to comment on Mr. Miller’s allegations, the Education Department released a statement later on April 14 saying that Ms. Spellings supported the release of the full report.

“The secretary has spent the past few days reviewing the report, and contrary to some press reports, the inspector general will be releasing it as originally drafted with the secretary’s full and complete support and cooperation,” Susan Aspey, the spokeswoman for the department, said.

The inspector general’s office refused to comment on Rep. Miller’s actions. The chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, also declined to comment.

The Bush administration and Mr. Williams came under sharp criticism after it was revealed that some $240,000 in federal money was paid to Mr. Williams last year for various efforts to promote the No Child Left Behind law, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda. The payment was part of a $1 million contract with the New York City-based public relations firm Ketchum Inc., which the department hired to promote the law. (“Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized,” Jan. 19, 2005.)

Mr. Williams, a commentator with his own cable-television news show who also appeared on news programs on CNN and MSNBC, provided favorable opinions on the federal law without disclosing the payment.

White House Refusal?

Though the deal with Mr. Williams was struck under Secretary Spellings’ predecessor, Rod Paige, Ms. Spellings has vowed to investigate it thoroughly.

In his press release last week, Rep. Miller said he met with Inspector General Higgins and members of Mr. Higgins’ staff on April 12 to discuss the contents of the draft report on the investigation.

During that meeting, according to the press release, Mr. Higgins told Mr. Miller that the secretary was considering invoking “deliberative-process privilege,” which Mr. Miller’s office said would require the inspector general’s office to delete information now in the draft report.

Elizabeth B. Meers, a partner in the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson, said the deliberative-process option allows agencies to decline to produce documents if a decision on a given matter has not yet been reached.

“The basic concept is that the agency is considering the matter, and therefore doesn’t want to release it publicly,” said Ms. Meers, who directs the firm’s education group.

In his April 14 letter to Ms. Spellings, Mr. Miller urged her not to invoke that privilege with respect to the report.

According to Rep. Miller, Mr. Higgins also said the White House had refused to allow investigators to talk with officials who might have had information about the Williams contract. President Bush has previously said that the White House was unaware of the agreement with Mr. Williams.

Also during the briefing, according to the press release, Mr. Higgins and his staff told Mr. Miller that some of the White House officials whom they were not allowed to interview had moved to the Education Department, but the inspector general did not provide any names.


Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
The Social-Emotional Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on American Schoolchildren
Hear new findings from an analysis of our 300 million student survey responses along with district leaders on new trends in student SEL.
Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal As New COVID Concerns Emerge, Biden Administration Keeps Focus on School Reopenings
Amid new COVID-19 concerns, the Biden administration kept its focus on in-person learning, stressing the need for safety precautions.
2 min read
Image of a student holding a mask and a backpack near the entrance of a classroom.
Federal Biden Calls on Schools to Host COVID-19 Vaccination Clinics for Kids 12 and Up
The president is focusing on vaccinating children ages 12 and older as concerns grow about the Delta variant and its impact on schools.
2 min read
President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on June 2.
Evan Vucci/AP
Federal How Political Backlash to Critical Race Theory Reached School Reopening Guidance
A lawmaker wants Miguel Cardona to repudiate the Abolitionist Teaching Network after federal COVID-19 documents referenced the group's work.
6 min read
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is seen at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 9, 2021 in Washington.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is seen at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 9, 2021 in Washington.<br/>
Graeme Sloan/SIPA USA via AP
Federal Biden Team: Schools Can Go Beyond Trump Rules in Response to Alleged Sexual Misconduct
The Education Department's guidance, released July 20, states that Title IX rules from 2020 lay out "minimum steps" for educators.
3 min read
Symbols of gender.