NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Newsgathering · Oct. 23, 2006
Pundit will repay government but admits no wrongdoing
Oct. 23, 2006 · Pundit Armstrong Williams, who received thousands in government money to promote a federal education initiative, has struck a deal to pay $34,000 to end a probe into his controversial contract with the Department of Education.
The settlement agreement signed Friday came at the end of a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department that focused on whether Williams was paid for services he did not provide. The investigation did not address whether Williams wrongly promoted President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the Justice Department, told USA Today that Williams never faced criminal charges.
Williams, a former columnist and radio and TV host, signed a $240,000 contract with the U.S. government in 2003 to produce two television and two radio ads featuring then-Education Secretary Rod Paige. The contract specified that Williams would promote the No Child Left Behind law and encourage other minority journalists to do the same.
In October 2005, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported that the Department of Education’s public relations efforts broke the laws prohibiting propaganda because the department did not explicitly disclose to the public its role in the prepackaged “news.”
But according to USA Today, the Justice Department never pursued the propaganda charge, investigating Williams only on charges that he overbilled the government.
Had the Justice Department pursued Williams under the False Claims Act, which concerns fraudulent billing to the U.S. government, Williams could have faced $64,000 in penalties, according to news reports.
The penalty, a total of $90,000, was based on work he billed the government for but did not complete. The government will reimburse Williams for work he finished, leaving him with $34,000 left to pay.
The Department of Education has defended the contract with Williams, saying his commentaries amounted to legitimate dissemination of information to the public. Williams has long maintained that he was only required to produce the TV and radio spots.
“I never in the history of that contract, influenced anyone and asked them to talk about No Child Left Behind,” Williams told USA Today.