WASHINGTON — Outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige directed his agency Thursday to begin a speedy investigation into its public relations contract with a prominent black media commentator after leaders of a Senate committee asked for records of the department's publicity deals.
At the same time, a Federal Communications Commission member asked that his agency investigate whether the commentator, Armstrong Williams, broke the law by failing to disclose that the Bush administration paid him $240,000 to plug its education policies to minority audiences.
Williams has apologized for a mistake in judgment, but says he has broken no law.
Paige, commenting about the flap for the first time, said he had ordered an inspector general investigation to "clear up any remaining aspects of this issue as soon as possible, so that it does not burden my successor or sully the fine people and good name of this department."
Paige is leaving his post shortly, likely to be replaced by Margaret Spellings.
The department, through a contract with a public relations firm, hired Williams to produce ads that featured Paige and promoted Bush's No Child Left Behind law. The contract also called for Williams 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.
"Given our jurisdiction over the funds involved, we would appreciate your careful review of the contract," said Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in a letter to Paige.