WASHINGTON — Education Department investigators looking into the administration's controversial hiring of commentator Armstrong Williams were denied the opportunity to interview some White House personnel because of a White House claim that such interviews could breach long-standing legal traditions.
"By statute, an inspector general's jurisdiction is limited," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Thursday. "An IG can request information from other federal agencies but not from the White House office."
She said the White House did allow the investigators to interview one White House employee who had been on loan to the Education Department when Williams was hired. But it has not granted permission for other interviews.
The White House refusal came to light Thursday after Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said he was told about it by Inspector General Jack Higgins. Miller wrote to the White House asking that investigators have full access to White House personnel so they could get to the bottom of the hiring of Williams.
Williams, a television and newspaper commentator, received $240,000 in federal funds last year to promote the president's No Child Left Behind initiative. Williams did not disclose the payments made to him through a public relations firm hired by the Education Department, even as he appeared on television promoting the president's work.
After disclosure of Williams' contract in January, Higgins launched an inquiry that is nearly complete.
This week, Higgins and members of his staff briefed Miller and informed him that they had encountered two potential obstacles, Miller said in an interview.
The first was the White House refusal to allow investigators to interview all officials who may have had knowledge of the Williams contract. Second was that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was considering deleting part of a draft copy of the inspector general's report, which has not been released.
Asked about the assertion that Spellings intended to invoke a "deliberative process privilege" that would require Higgins to delete information from the report, Spellings' office issued a statement late Thursday saying she would release the inspector general's draft unedited.
"The inspector general will be releasing it as originally drafted with the secretary's full and complete support and cooperation," said department spokeswoman Susan Aspey.
Earlier in the day, Miller rejected the notion that the law should prevent White House staffers from cooperating. "The public's right to know is absolutely more important than any claim of privilege that the White House or the Department of Education might make," Miller said.
Perino said it was a matter of principle. She said permission was granted to interview a White House official about his time spent at the Eduction Department, but not to question officials who worked at the White House at the time Williams was hired and who have since moved to the Education Department.
That could include Spellings, who was the top domestic policy advisor at the White House during President Bush's first term and was named Education secretary Nov. 17.
"The courts have ruled in many contexts that the White House office is not a federal agency," Perino said. "A similar principle underlies the long-standing tradition of White House staff not testifying before Congress. We are declining as a matter of policy."
Higgins did not respond to a request for comment.
Constitutional law scholars said that the case law in this area was thin but that the White House could, at its discretion, permit current or former staff to be interviewed by the inspector general.
"At first blush, this strikes me as not in the zone of the law but in the zone of politics," said Goodwin Liu, a constitutional law expert at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.
An aide to Miller said the White House explanation "unmistakably leads you back to the question, 'Is there something the White House is trying to cover up or hide?' "
Miller asked Higgins to delay release of the report until the White House granted "Higgins' office the right to interview any current or former White House officials with information about the contract."
USA Today first disclosed the Williams contract in January. At the time, Democrats charged that taxpayer funds were being used to distribute Republican propaganda. The White House has consistently distanced itself from the decision to hire Williams, and Bush has criticized the decision. He did so again Thursday when he told a meeting of newspaper editors that the hiring of Williams "was wrong."