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Federal Contracts With Columnists Prompt Change in Policy

The Nation

January 28, 2005|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A part-time columnist who heads an organization that promotes marriage was awarded a contract worth up to $10,000 from the Bush administration last year -- the third recent case in which a syndicated columnist has received such payments.

The columnist, Michael J. McManus, said he was paid through a subcontract from a consulting firm that does work for the Department of Health and Human Services.

He said he saw nothing wrong with receiving the money, which he said amounted to $4,000 plus travel expenses, or an additional $49,000 in federal funds channeled to his organization, Marriage Savers Inc. of Potomac, Md., from another federal grant recipient.

McManus said Thursday night that his column appeared in 30 papers, most of them small, and generally did not back or even address administration policies. He said his applications for some direct federal grants had been denied by the Bush administration, "so I don't think it looks terribly cozy."

Nonetheless, an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services who oversees the payments said Thursday he was changing his division's policy so that contracts to columnists would be prohibited.

Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families, said he was forbidding the department's Administration for Children and Families to contract with columnists "in order to prevent even the appearance of a conflict of interest and to maintain an arm's-length distance between the administration and the media."

Under the new rules, the division would be unable to hire noted pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton because he also writes a column, Horn said, even though Brazelton, like McManus, could provide substantive assistance to the agency.

The policy would prevent McManus from receiving subcontracts like the one, worth up to $10,000, that he received for speaking to religious and community groups about marriage counseling. However, it would not have affected his ability to receive the $49,000 sub-grant made through another organization. That grant was made to develop ways to promote marriage to unwed mothers.

"The federal government is not involved in telling grantees how to use the funds they receive," Horn said.

Horn's division was cast into the spotlight this week when the Washington Post disclosed that it had contracted with another part-time columnist, Maggie Gallagher, also a marriage expert and researcher. Gallagher confirmed that she had accepted $21,500 from the Department of Health and Human Services to help draft brochures and other materials describing the benefits of marriage for unwed parents and other aid recipients.

In a statement, Gallagher denied that her work was part of promoting an administration initiative but said it was a mistake not to disclose the payment.

McManus distinguished his case from Gallagher's because he said he wrote nothing to promote the administration's agenda on the issues for which he was paid. Besides, he added, the column is only a sideline.

"I don't see that it conflicts with my column," he said of the federal funding. "My column is not my primary work. I work a day a week on my column. My primary work is running Marriage Savers."

Horn said he thought problems had developed recently in part because more columnists and pundits are engaged in their work as a sideline.

Horn, a former board member of Marriage Savers, said that the Lewin Group, a frequent federal consultant on healthcare issues, was responsible for the contract with McManus and that he had been unaware of it. The subcontract with McManus was not related to any public relations efforts, Horn said.

Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the government has awarded contracts to public relations firms to present information about specific issues and promote its programs. The amount and number of contracts have increased under the current administration.

This month it was disclosed that the Education Department, through a public relations firm, had paid commentator Armstrong Williams almost $240,000 to promote the administration's education policy in his television broadcasts.

President Bush said this week that the practice of hiring journalists should "not go forward."

Horn's relationship with McManus' organization raised questions for some observers.

Naomi Seligman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit nonpartisan advocacy organization, was concerned that Horn had been on the board of McManus' organization. Horn said he disclosed the relationship on ethics forms and recused himself from anything to do with Marriage Savers for a year, as required.

"What's most troublesome here is that they are paying a columnist to promote the administration's agenda," Seligman said, an allegation that Horn and McManus deny.

The Marriage Savers website describes the organization as "a ministry that equips local communities, principally through local congregations, to help men and women to prepare for lifelong marriage, strengthen existing marriages and restore troubled marriage."

McManus' columns sometimes have had a partisan tilt. In August, he evaluated Bush's record, concluding, "Although Bush's record is flawed, it has been based on high biblical ideals."

An October column noted: "People of faith and those most committed to traditional marriage will decide this election." In other columns, he detailed arguments against same-sex marriage.

McManus said he had been critical of Bush -- for example, taking to the administration's environmental policies to task.

"If I was trying to curry favor with the administration, I would have written a lot more favorable" pieces, he said.

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