Education Dept. Contacts U.S. Attorney About Hiring Commentator

Investigators at the Education Department have contacted the U.S. attorney's office regarding the Bush administration's hiring of commentator Armstrong Williams (search) to promote its agenda.

The action was disclosed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (search), D-N.J., who has pressed for a criminal fraud investigation focused on questions about whether Williams actually performed the work cited in his monthly reports to the Education Department.

Last month, congressional auditors concluded that the Education Department had engaged in illegal "covert propaganda" by hiring Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act without requiring him to disclose that he was being paid.

In an Oct. 6 letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search), Lautenberg and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said questions of fraud remained. Lautenberg also asked the Education Department's Office of Inspector General to more fully investigate the contract. The inspector general's office told Lautenberg in a letter released Friday that it was working with the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia.

"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," said Lautenberg.

Williams, a conservative black commentator, was paid to produce ads promoting the education program, and to provide media time to department officials and persuade other blacks in the media to discuss the law. GAO auditors could not find the work Williams listed or could not connect the work they found to his contract.

Williams' spokeswoman Shirley Dave said the commentator had not been informed about the latest development and had no comment. She had said previously that Williams was negotiating with the department to return part of the money he was paid.

The deal occurred during the tenure of former Education Secretary Rod Paige (search). Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey had no comment on the work of inspector general's office, which operates independently. Inspector General Counsel Mary Mitchelson also declined comment.