WASHINGTON – The Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that a third conservative columnist was paid to assist in promoting a Bush administration policy.
Columnist Mike McManus (search) received $10,000 to train marriage counselors as part of the agency's initiative promoting marriage to build strong families, said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families.
The disclosure came as the Government Accountability Office (search) sent a letter to the Education Department on Friday asking for all materials related to its contract dealings with a prominent conservative media commentator.
That department, through a contract with the public relations firm Ketchum (search), hired commentator Armstrong Williams (search) to produce ads that featured former Education Secretary Rod Paige and promoted President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. The contract also committed Williams, who is black, 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.
The Education Department received the GAO's letter and is reviewing it, said department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "Secretary Spelling has made it very clear she is getting to the bottom of this."
Margaret Spellings started this week, replacing Paige.
In a letter to Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, dated Friday, Spellings wrote, "At this point, what I can say is that at a minimum, there were errors of judgments at the Department, and I am diligently working to get to the bottom of it all."
The lawmakers are the chairman and the ranking member of a panel that oversees education spending, and their subcommittee is looking into the matter.
Spellings also said the department has directed Ketchum to stop all work under the contract.
Earlier this week, Bush ordered his Cabinet secretaries not to hire columnists to promote administration agendas. The declaration was prompted by reports that Williams and another columnist, Maggie Gallagher, had been paid by the administration.
All three columnists failed to disclose to their readers their relationships with the administration.
Health and Human Services' Horn stressed McManus was not paid to write favorably to about the administration. Still, he said, HHS has now implemented a rule to prohibit the use of outside consultants or contractors who have any connection with the press.
"There's a growing misperception that taxpayers' money is being used to pay columnists to use their position in the media to portray the administration in a positive light," Horn said. "I felt a compelling need to draw a bright line in order to restore the public's confidence that we are not doing that."
McManus was hired by the Lewin Group, which had a contract with HHS to support community-based programs. As co-founder and president of the nonprofit group Marriage Savers, his expertise was applied to help the community-based programs to build "the capacity to develop healthy marriage initiatives," Horn said.
The Institute for Youth Development, which got a grant from HHS, also is paying Marriage Savers $49,000 to offer guidance to unmarried couples who are having children, Horn said.
McManus has written supportively about the HHS marriage initiative in many of his columns since the consulting work began in January 2003.
McManus' weekly column appears in about 50 newspapers. He would not comment Friday but said he planned to issue a statement.
HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said he was unaware of any other columnists or commentators who were being paid to do work for the department.
Determining who is considered a journalist isn't always easy, Horn said.
"Oftentimes they will be experts in an area, write op-eds, be a media personality, write columns," he said. "The question really is: Is it legitimate for the government to draw upon that?"
Gallagher apologized this week to readers for not disclosing a $21,500 contract with HHS to help create materials promoting the marriage initiative.
The Education Department paid Williams $240,000 to produce television and radio ads promoting the No Child Left Behind Act. Williams has apologized and called it a mistake in judgment not to disclose that the administration was paying him.
Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., had requested the GAO to expand a continuing inquiry into the matter.
"The issue here isn't just whether a journalist violated ethics, but whether the Bush Administration broke the law," Lautenberg said Friday. "If the GAO finds that the payment to Armstrong Williams was an illegal use of taxpayer dollars, then the money should be returned and Education Department officials should be held accountable."
USA Today first reported the McManus contract Friday.