GAO: Education Dept. Violated Propaganda Ban in Hiring Columnist

The Education Department violated a ban on covert propaganda when it paid a columnist to tout government policies and produced a video that seemed like a news story, congressional investigators said Friday.

The public relations efforts violated the government's "publicity or propaganda prohibition" because the Education Department contracts did not ensure that the department's role was clearly disclosed, the Government Accountability Office said.

The investigation had been requested by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (search), D-N.J., and Edward Kennedy (search), D-Mass., after it was revealed that the department had hired Armstrong Williams, a syndicated conservative columnist and TV personality, to promote Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law.

The department approved spending $240,000 to have Williams, who is black, inform minorities about Bush's law by producing ads with then-Education Secretary Rod Paige. Williams also was to provide media time to Paige and to persuade other blacks in the media to talk about the law.

The GAO also looked at a broader Education Department contract with Ketchum, a public relations firm, to publicize the Bush education agenda. This effort included production of a "video news release" promoting the education law that looked and sounded like a news story.

The firm also rated various news stories and individual reporters on how favorable their education reporting was to Bush and the Republican Party.

"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."

Kennedy added: "The taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign coming from the White House is another sign of the culture of corruption that pervades the White House and Republican leadership."

A spokeswoman for the Education Department said the agency was reviewing the GAO documents and would respond shortly.

In a related matter, the GAO also looked into a Health and Human Services Department contract with syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher to help promote a marriage initiative. The GAO said the Gallagher contract did not violate the propaganda ban "because the services provided were not covert, self-aggrandizing or purely partisan."