WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for an investigation Friday into whether the Bush administration misused taxpayer funds by paying a prominent media pundit $240,000 to promote the president's controversial new education policy.
The Education Department on Friday defended its payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams as part of a million-dollar contract with the Ketchum public relations firm to promote the No Child Left Behind Act with minority groups.
Williams, who is African American, was hired by Ketchum in late 2003 to build support among minorities for the president's education plan. He praised the program in columns and on television without disclosing the payments.
His case is the latest and perhaps most striking example of the Bush administration using government funds to market its agenda to the American public under the guise of journalism. It is also a fresh blow for the media following recent scandals that have raised questions about credibility.
Williams is the host of a syndicated television show and a frequent guest on CNN, NBC and other media outlets, and writes a syndicated opinion column. His website describes him as a "principled voice for conservatives and Christian values in America's public debates" who brings "an independent view with a refreshing twist to the central issues of our day."
In a column in May, for example, he sharply criticized the National Education Assn., saying the teachers union was "fundamentally opposed to any education reform -- like vouchers or the No Child Left Behind Act -- that seeks to hold public schools accountable for their failures."
Williams said Friday that he had "made an error of judgment" in accepting the payment, which was disclosed by USA Today.
Tribune Media Services, a subsidiary of the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, announced it would stop syndicating Williams' column in response to the revelations.
Democrats said Friday that the payments to Williams amounted to using tax money to fund Republican propaganda. They were joined in their call for an inspector general inquiry by at least one Republican, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
"We believe that the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy," said Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in a letter to the president. They wrote that such actions "were common in the Soviet Union, but until now, thought to be long extinguished in our country."
Public relations contracts to promote government goals and services have been around for decades. Under Republican and Democratic administrations, the number and size of these contracts have grown, along with the use of deceptive tactics, according to PR industry officials.
In two cases last year, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' nonpartisan investigative arm, declared that departments under Bush had engaged in illegal "covert propaganda."
The GAO issued a legal opinion criticizing video segments produced by PR firms under contract with the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The segments were designed to be inserted into television station newscasts, but did not indicate that the origin of the information was the U.S. government. A third investigation into videos produced by the Education Department is pending.
The Education Department defended its practices in a three-paragraph statement, contending that officials had a duty to reach out to as many parents as possible to explain No Child Left Behind, which Bush signed three years ago.
The law, one of Bush's signature domestic policy achievements, requires states to hold schools accountable for teaching reading and mathematics in elementary and middle schools in exchange for more federal education aid.
Concerns about public reaction to the law mounted in Republican circles. Democrats attacked the administration for failing to provide enough funding for the new policy. Teachers complained about the complex testing requirements.
To help promote and explain the new law, the department retained Ketchum. The Ketchum contract came under criticism last fall when it emerged that some money was spent to help the department assess how the media was portraying the law, and other money was spent to develop controversial "video news releases."
Another part of the contract turned out to be the deal with Williams. The department acknowledged that a firm headed by Williams had been awarded a subcontract worth $240,000. The term of the subcontract was about a year, starting in December 2003.