WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Rod Paige (search) directed his agency Thursday to begin a speedy investigation into its public relations contract with a prominent black media commentator after leaders of a Senate committee asked for records of the department's publicity deals.
At the same time, a Federal Communications Commission (search) member asked that his agency investigate whether the commentator, Armstrong Williams, broke the law by failing to disclose that the Bush administration paid him $240,000 to plug its education policies to minority audiences.
Williams has apologized for a mistake in judgment but says he has broken no law.
Paige, commenting about the flap for the first time, said he has ordered an inspector general investigation to "clear up any remaining aspects of this issue as soon as possible, so that it does not burden my successor or sully the fine people and good name of this department."
Paige is leaving his post shortly, likely to be replaced by Margaret Spellings.
The department, through a contract with the public relations firm Ketchum, hired Williams to produce ads that featured Paige and promoted Bush's No Child Left Behind (search) law. The contract also called for Williams to provide media access for Paige and to persuade other black journalists to talk about the law.
Federal law bans the use of public money on propaganda.
"Given our jurisdiction over the funds involved, we would appreciate your careful review of the contract with Ketchum and the payment made to Mr. Williams," said Sens. Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in a letter to Paige.
The letter, dated Wednesday, was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday. The lawmakers are the chairman and the ranking member of the panel that oversees education spending.
They asked Paige for a list of any grant, contract or arrangement of public money being used "for public relations or anything similar to the purpose of the Ketchum contract" from the 2002, 2003 and 2004 budget years.
Harkin also plans to introduce a bill requiring federal agencies to report their entire advertising budgets to Congress, and to make clear in their ads that public money was used.
As part of a more than $1 million contract with Ketchum, the Education Department paid for a video that appeared as a news story without making clear the reporter was hired to promote No Child Left Behind. The agency also paid for ratings of news reporters, with points for stories that make the law, the Bush administration and the Republican Party look good.
Meanwhile, at an FCC meeting Thursday, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein (search) said the agency had received about a dozen complaints concerning the Williams arrangement.
"I certainly hope the FCC will take action and fully investigate whether any laws have been broken," Adelstein said.
Paige said the public money went solely for ads in which he described the law.
"All of this has been reviewed and is legal," Paige said. "However, I am sorry that there are perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses."
When the news broke last week, the department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds." Williams, however apologized, saying that accepting money and then publicly supporting the law was an "obvious conflict of interests."
On Thursday, Williams, responding to the request for an FCC investigation, said neither he nor any of the stations that carried his syndicated program violated the law. He said the ads that aired during the show stated they were paid for by the Education Department.
"I was not engaged in any public relations in this campaign. It was strictly advertising," Williams said by phone. "I'm not concerned about this witch hunt because I know that I've done nothing wrong, nothing illegal."
None of the other commissioners responded to Adelstein's statement during the meeting. Afterward, FCC Chairman Michael Powell (search), a Republican, and David Solomon, who heads the agency's enforcement bureau, declined to comment.
Generally, the FCC reviews letters and complaints before determining if there should be an investigation. Powell said he had not seen the complaints filed against Williams.