WASHINGTON, D.C.—The work performed by conservative commentator and occasional public relations practitioner Armstrong Williams on behalf of the Department of Education were of poor quality and likely did not reach their intended audience, according to a 20-page report released last week by the Department’s inspector general.
However, the report found “no violations of pertinent contract law” and “no evidence of any ethical violations” in the contract between the DoE and Williams.
“The department paid for work that most likely did not reach its intended audience and paid for deliverables that were never received,” the report said. “The advertisements that were produced under the work requests appear to be of poor quality and the Department has no assurance that the ads received the airtime for which it paid.”
The investigation was launched after revelations that the Department of Education—through its public relations agency Ketchum—had paid Williams $240,000 to produce video news release promoting the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative. The contract between the DoE and Williams also called for the commentator to comment favorable about the initiative on his syndicated television show and to invite then Education Secretary Rod Paige to discuss No Child Left Behind on the show.
The report also revealed that the White House, which had previously denied any prior knowledge of the affair, had been told about potential problems with the contract but took no action.
The report revealed that shortly before the contract was renewed in mid-2004, a midlevel White House aide received calls from Education officials concerned about the contract’s cost, its effectiveness and Williams’ dual role as journalist and government public relations man. The aide, later identified as David Dunn, a former special assistant for domestic policy who is now chief of staff at the DoE, did not act on those concerns.
The report found no violations of law, but did not examine the legal question raised most often by congressional Democrats: whether the contract breached federal rules prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds to “covertly distribute propaganda.”
There was additional controversy earlier in the week, when Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.), the senior Democrat on the House education committee, accused the administration of hindering the investigation. According to Miller, new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings had invoked a privilege that required information to be deleted when the final version of Higgins’ report was publicly released.
“Every American should be outraged that concerns were raised at the highest levels of the Department and to the White House about the highly irregular nature of this contract,” said Miller. “Although White House officials had professed ignorance of the Armstrong Williams contract, this report makes it clear they were aware but failed to intervene.”
Spellings said she would adopt the report’s recommendations for improvements in contract oversight. “It is clear from this report that there were serious lapses in judgment by senior department officials in regard to this contract that reverberated down the chain of command,” she said.
Ketchum said in a statement that it had cooperated fully with the investigation, and that “the vast majority of the report is consistent with our understanding of the events and we respect the overall conclusions. We will continue to work with the government and our industry in addressing this situation.”
Separately, the Federal Communications Commission has reaffirmed rules that require broadcasters to disclose the source of materials produced by third parties.
According to FCC commissioners Michael Copps “tens of thousands of citizens contacted the FCC demanding an investigation into the failure of broadcasters to disclose their use of government-generated ‘news’ stories. They were right to do so.”
“This is a small but significant victory for people who want news instead of propaganda on local TV,” said Arkadi Gerney, director of StartChange, which had lobbied against what it calls fake news. “Now we just need the Bush administration to stop unlawfully wasting tax-payer money producing the VNR propaganda segments.”