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GAO Faults Faked Reports

Education Department broke propaganda rules, a congressional investigation finds.

October 01, 2005|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration engaged in "covert propaganda" in hiring conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams to promote a controversial education program, congressional investigators said Friday.

The Education Department also produced packaged news programs and stories that were distributed to media outlets and aired without properly identifying the source of the material, the Government Accountability Office determined.

In both cases, according to the findings, the Education Department paid private contractors to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to direct federal funds to underperforming schools.

"We find that the department contracted for Armstrong Williams to comment regularly on the No Child Left Behind Act without assuring that the department's role was disclosed to the targeted audiences," a letter from the GAO to the Education Department says. "This violated the publicity-or-propaganda prohibition."

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who requested the GAO investigation, demanded that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings seek a refund of taxpayer funds used in producing the fake news releases.

The department signed a $240,000 contract with Williams to talk about the act on his television news program. The department paid Ketchum Inc., a public relations firm, $135,272 to create a video that appeared to be a television news segment extolling the virtues of the act.

Under the Ketchum contract, the department also rated media coverage to determine whether it contained the message that the Bush administration and the GOP was "committed to education." The contract also paid a news syndicate, North American Precis Syndicate, to produce an article about the lack of science education in classrooms.

Education officials, who have previously acknowledged erring in producing the news releases, said the department was no longer engaged in such activities. The contracts were signed under the previous education secretary, Rod Paige.

"We've said for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong and ill-advised. There's nothing in today's action that changes our opinion," said Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman. "Under Secretary Spellings' leadership, stringent processes have been instituted to ensure these types of missteps don't happen again."

Williams could not be reached for comment Friday.

When news accounts of the contract first appeared, he acknowledged that he "made an error of judgment." Tribune Media Services, a subsidiary of Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, announced that it would stop syndicating Williams' column in response to the revelations.

The Education Department's activities are not the first time that administration officials have been accused by the GAO of engaging in "covert propaganda."

The GAO previously issued a legal opinion criticizing video segments produced by public relations firms under contract with the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The segments, designed to be inserted into TV newscasts, did not indicate that the origin of the information was the federal government. Department spokesmen defended the agencies' actions.

In at least two cases during the Clinton administration, departments used actors to portray reporters in fake news segments designed to be distributed to TV stations.

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