WASHINGTON, D.C.—Two weeks after the Government Accounting Office condemned the Department of Education for engaging in “covert propaganda” when it hired conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote its No Child Left Behind initiative, the public learned that the United States attorney’s office is investigating Williams to ascertain whether performed all the work for which he was paid.
The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia is investigating whether Williams accepted public money without performing his required duties, Reuters reported last week. Discussions between the U.S. attorney and lawyers acting for Williams have apparently been going on for several weeks, but became public only after Senators Frank Lautengerg and Edward Kennedy called for a criminal investigation after the GAO’s finding.
Dan Katz, chief counsel for Lautenberg, says the attorney’s office has a range of potential remedies for any fraud, including suing to recover the money or filing criminal charges. In previous statements, Williams said he did not need to give any of the payments back, but more recently a spokeswoman had indicated that there might be a partial refund.
Colby May, a lawyer for Mr. Williams, says he expects the issue to be resolved soon. “There is no criminal investigation, query or question in this matter,” he told The New York Time. “There is clearly a contract dispute. It involves matters on both sides, and we are clearly in the process of resolving it.”
Lautenberg, meanwhile, sought to tie the scandal to other Bush administration problems. “It’s bad enough the administration bribed a journalist to promote their policies, but now it looks like taxpayer dollars were handed over for work that was never done…. This case falls into the pattern of corruption and cronyism we are seeing from this administration,” he said in a statement. “Instead of looking out for their political pals, this administration needs to start looking out for the American people and their hard-earned tax dollars.”
Williams was paid to produce ads promoting No Child Left Behind, and to provide media time to department officials supporting the law. Williams was hired directly by the Department of Education, under a contract administered by international public relations firm Ketchum.
Ketchum president Ray Kotcher said in statement that the agency respected the right of Senators to request further inquiries into the Department of Education’s contractual relationship with the Graham Williams Group and Armstrong Williams, and emphasized that Ketchum’s work for the department was completely open. Several VNRs, which have been the subject of some controversy, were clearly identified as government funded.
“As we have said before, it was never Ketchum's intention to mislead anyone,” said the statement. “Our policies are clear on disclosure and transparency, and yet we always strive to improve. Ketchum has implemented new procedures and training designed to help us clearly and effectively navigate the changing, highly complex media environment for our clients and for the agency.”