One investigation into the Department of Education’s public relations arrangement with the commentator Armstrong Williams has found no legal or ethical violations, while a second report taking a broader look at the department’s PR efforts—and the possibility they could be deemed covert propaganda—will likely be released in several weeks.
In a report released April 15, the Education Department inspector general’s office found that agency officials had made poor management decisions and wasted taxpayer money but didn’t violate the law in arranging to pay Mr. Williams to help promote the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
But that conclusion doesn’t let the department off the hook. A separate inspector general’s report is likely to be released soon on whether the department engaged in covert propaganda in promoting the federal law, said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
When it comes to the department’s relationship with Mr. Williams, Education Department Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. concluded that the department had “exercised poor judgment and oversight” in the matter.
Though Mr. Williams was paid to create advertising for the No Child Left Behind Act, to provide time on his syndicated television show for department officials to discuss the initiative, and to try and sway other African-American news shows and media figures to talk about the law, he did not reveal the arrangement when writing opinion columns on the issue or when he interviewed on the subject on cable news shows.
Though Mr. Williams received two government contracts worth a total of more than $250,000, the work done “most likely did not reach its intended audience,” Mr. Higgins’ report says. Also, it says, the advertisements “that were produced under the work requests appear to be of poor quality, and the department has no assurance the ads received the airtime for which it paid.”
To date, Mr. Williams has been paid $188,500 under the contracts, according to the report.
The inspector general found no violations of pertinent contract law and no evidence of any ethical violations in a May 2003 department contract with the New York City-based public relations firm Ketchum Inc. and in related work requests for Mr. Williams’ Washington communications firm, the Graham Williams Group, under contracts dated Dec. 2, 2003 and June 25, 2004. The Education Department directed Ketchum to hire Mr. Williams’ firm to help with minority outreach in support of the No Child Left Behind law. That action by the department gave the appearance of circumventing procedures for awarding contracts, the report says.
The controversy over the hiring of Mr. Williams, a prominent conservative African-American pundit whose role in the outreach effort was revealed by USA Today in January, sparked calls by members of Congress for the inspector general’s report and for one by the Government Accountability Office, which is still investigating whether the arrangement violated a federal law that prohibits government propaganda.
Earlier this month, the matter drew new attention when Rep. Miller accused Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was not at the department when the arrangement with Mr. Williams was made, of threatening to block some of the information in the inspector general’s report from being released. Mr. Miller also alleged that the White House had not permitted some of its staff to be interviewed for the investigation. (“PR Probe Sparks Dispute Over Officials’ Cooperation,” April 14, 2005.)
After Mr. Miller publicized his objections on April 14, Secretary Spellings said through a spokeswoman the same day that the inspector general would release the full report with her support.
Ms. Spellings wrote in a response included with the report that it “paints a very unfortunate picture of mismanagement and indicates a lack of sound judgment on several levels.” The secretary said she planned to implement the inspector general’s recommendations, as well as others of her own that would go further.
Rep. Miller called the report “a troubling picture of irresponsible—and potentially criminal—mismanagement of expensive contracts.”
“On page after page,” he said in an April 15 statement, “this report documents a reckless waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on unqualified people who failed to produce what they promised, most especially Armstrong Williams.”
Mr. Williams was paid to provide advertising for the No Child Left Behind Act, to provide time for Education Department officials to discuss the law on his television show, and to use his influence with other African-American shows and personalities to promote the law. Mr. Williams was widely criticized for not disclosing the arrangement when he appeared on cable news outlets such as CNN or when he wrote about the law in his syndicated newspaper column.
Though the department’s $1 million contract with Ketchum Inc. was for a broad communications campaign supporting the No Child Left Behind Act—the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda—federal officials wanted to more directly reach minority groups that might be most affected by the law. The NCLB act has specific remedies for schools needing improvement, which often are in low-income, predominantly minority areas.
But in arranging for help with minority outreach under the Ketchum contract, the department skirted normal procedures for hiring subcontractors, the inspector general’s report says. Instead of relying on Ketchum to hire another company for such outreach, federal officials explicitly directed Ketchum to hire the Graham Williams Group, the report says. Then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige directed staff members to look at a proposal Mr. Williams made to him regarding public relations work on the federal education law, according to the report. The result was “the appearance of circumventing competition in contracting,” it says.
Neither Mr. Paige nor Mr. Williams returned messages seeking comment last week.
‘A Chain Reaction’
After the arrangement involving Mr. Williams’ firm was disclosed, Secretary Paige defended the contract as legal. But President Bush condemned it and said the White House was unaware of the arrangement.
However, the inspector general’s report says that when some top officials in the Education Department, including then-Chief of Staff Anne Radice, raised concerns about the relationship, there was a consultation on the matter with David Dunn, then a special assistant to the president for domestic policy at the White House, who also had concerns. Mr. Dunn now serves as Ms. Spellings’ chief of staff. Ms. Spellings was the president’s chief domestic-policy adviser before she succeeded Mr. Paige as secretary in January.
The report includes recommendations for the Education Department’s handling of such contracts, including ensuring that the services contracted for are monitored and provided. It also recommends that the department recover, “if appropriate,” money paid to the Graham Williams Group for services that were never provided.
In her response, Ms. Spellings said that it was important to understand how the arrangement came about and noted that “the office of the secretary carries weight. When the secretary, his/ her chief of staff, and other senior officers urge hint, suggest, or recommend anything, it can start a chain reaction within the building to carry out such a request.”
Ms. Spellings also made a point of saying that “senior appointees who were responsible for this contract no longer work at the department.”
To “enhance public trust in the agency,” the secretary said, she has directed officials to go’ over public relations grants and contracts to make sure they’re awarded in accordance with federal regulations. The Education Department’s general counsel’s office will review all contracts that have a public relations function, she said. And she noted that she has created a new position of assistant secretary for communications and outreach to better communicate such efforts.