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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Broadcasting · Oct. 4, 2005
GAO says Bush team engaged in illegal 'covert propaganda'
Oct. 4, 2005 · Bush administration payments of $240,000 to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the "No Child Left Behind" education law were illegal, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Friday. The Department of Education violated a law that prohibits government agencies from spending money on "publicity or propaganda" when it paid Williams to promote Bush's policies and when it produced a prepackaged news story, the report says.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the department's public relations efforts broke the law because the department did not explicitly disclose to the public its role in the prepackaged "news."
In a report requested by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D- Mass.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D- N.J.), the GAO found that the payments to syndicated columnist and TV personality Williams violated a statutory ban on covert propaganda. The senators requested the investigation after it was revealed late last year that the department hired Williams to promote Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation.
Williams, host of "The Right Side," was paid to regularly speak about the controversial policy during his show, and to interview then-Education Secretary Rod Paige for television and radio spots that aired on the show in 2004, according to Armstrong's contract with Ketchum, Inc., a public relations firm. The contract was part of a $1 million deal to produce "video news releases" disguised as news reports, the GAO found.
The GAO's general counsel referred to a federal appropriations measure that says no federal money "may be used by an executive branch agency to produce any prepackaged news story intended for broadcast or distribution unless the story includes a clear notification within the text or audio . . . was prepared or funded by that executive branch agency." The report did not find such disclosure.
"The Bush administration took taxpayer funds that should have gone towards helping kids learn and diverted it to a political propaganda campaign," Lautenberg said in a statement. "The administration needs to return these funds to the treasury."
The department defends the contract with Williams, saying his commentaries were "no more than the legitimate dissemination of information to the public."
The GAO investigation also found a previously undisclosed case in which the department commissioned a newspaper article that lauded the department's role in promoting science education. The article was printed in a number of papers across the country through the North American Precis Syndicate, which provides news releases from companies, associations, public relations firms and government information offices, and free features for editors.
The 1913 law, updated in 1966, prohibits such deals. "Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose," a provision in the U.S. code reads. The GAO determined that the Bush administration violated this provision.
The "publicity and propaganda" law was cited in May 2004 by Anthony H. Gamboa, GAO's general counsel, when he ruled that government videos disguised as news violate two other laws.
After news of the Williams contract broke, stories of two other part-time columnists, Maggie Gallagher and Michael J. McManus, were published. Both were paid by the Bush administration and did not disclose the relationship in their columns. However, Gallagher's contract did not call for actual promotion of the administration's policies and the $21,500 she was paid by the Department of Health and Human Services for work on the administration's marriage initiative was not found to violate law. Gallagher, the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, is a marriage expert and researcher.
McManus, a syndicated columnist for 30 small newspapers who also heads a group that promotes marriage, was awarded a contract worth up to $10,000 for talking to religious and community groups about marriage counseling, the Los Angeles Times reported.