WASHINGTON, D.C.—The “pay for play” scandal triggered by revelations about payments by the Department of Education to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams expanded this week, after two other reporters admitted receiving payments from the Bush administration.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the Department of Health & Human Services had paid syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher $21,000 to write brochures and essays and to brief government employees on the president’s “healthy marriage” initiative. The next day, the online magazine Salon reported that Michael McManus, author of the syndicated Ethics & Religion column—carried by more than 50 newspapers—was also paid $10,000 by the DHHS.
According to Salon, McManus “championed the plan in his columns without disclosing to readers he was being paid to help it succeed.”
Dr. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at HHS, immediately announced that the department would institute a new policy preventing the agency from hiring any outside expert or consultant who has any working affiliation with the media. “I needed to draw this bright line,” Horn tells Salon. “The policy is being implemented and we’re moving forward.”
It was not clear whether the payments to Gallagher and McManus—both known for their conservative views on marriage—included payment for promoting the administration’s initiatives in their respective columns. Horn says the two journalists were being paid for the expertise in the area of marriage counseling.
“We live in a complicated world and people wear many different hats,” he told reporters. “People who have expertise might also be writing columns. The line has become increasingly blurred between who’s a member of the media and who is not. Thirty years ago if you were a columnist, then you were a full-time employee of a newspaper. Columnists today are different.”
Meanwhile, a report in USA Today found that the Bush administration had paid public relations firms about $250 million—twice the amount spent by the Clinton administration from 1997 to 2000. The administration spent $88 million with public relations firms in 2004, with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services spending the most—$94 million over four years—and Ketchum (the agency at the center of the Armstrong Williams row) the biggest beneficiary, taking in $97 million.
“While not all public relations spending is illegal or inappropriate, this rapid rise in public relations contracts at a time of growing budget deficits raises questions about the priorities of the administration,” said the report by the Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee