In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush's push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families.
"The Bush marriage initiative would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples" and "educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage," Gallagher wrote in National Review Online, for example, adding that this could "carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children."
But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president's proposal. Her work under the contract, which ran from January through October 2002, included drafting a magazine article for the HHS official overseeing the initiative, writing brochures for the program and conducting a briefing for department officials.
"Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?" Gallagher said yesterday. "I don't know. You tell me." She said she would have "been happy to tell anyone who called me" about the contract but that "frankly, it never occurred to me" to disclose it.
Later in the day, Gallagher filed a column in which she said that "I should have disclosed a government contract when I later wrote about the Bush marriage initiative. I would have, if I had remembered it. My apologies to my readers."
In the interview, Gallagher said her situation was "not really anything near" the recent controversy involving conservative commentator Armstrong Williams. Earlier this month Williams apologized for not disclosing a $241,000 contract with the Education Department, awarded through the Ketchum public relations firm, to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind law through advertising on his cable TV and syndicated radio shows and other efforts.
Gallagher received an additional $20,000 from the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003 for writing a report, titled "Can Government Strengthen Marriage?", for a private organization called the National Fatherhood Initiative. That report, published last year, was funded by a Justice Department grant, said NFI spokesman Vincent DiCaro. Gallagher said she was "aware vaguely" that her work was federally funded.
President Bush, asked about the practice at a news conference this morning, acknowledged that his administration had made a mistake by awarding contracts to commentators who support his policies.
Bush said he expects his Cabinet secretaries to end the practice. "Mr. Armstrong Williams admitted he made a mistake," Bush said. "We didn't know about this in the White House. There needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press."
Bush said in response to a follow-up question that the Education Department had made a mistake as well.
"All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda," he said. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
Bush told reporters he was "confident" that the press would provide "an objective look" at his administration's policies, adding: "Won't you?"
Gallagher, in columns, television appearances and interviews with such newspapers as The Washington Post, last year defended Bush's proposal for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.
Wade Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, said his division hired Gallagher as "a well-known national expert," along with other specialists in the field, to help devise the president's healthy marriage initiative. "It's not unusual in the federal government to do that," he said.