Education Department officials, including former secretary Roderick R. Paige, have argued that the Ketchum contract was appropriate. They say the department has a duty to educate the public about No Child Left Behind, which aims to bring all children up to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. The department's own public affairs staff was not large enough, one official said, "so we decided to bring in some outside help and get some experts in social marketing in on it."
The official, interviewed earlier this month, did not want his name used because the department wanted then-Secretary Paige to be the public face of its response to criticism on the issue. The official said the agency paid Ketchum with general funds, not specially appropriated dollars. And he said such arrangements are common.
"In a lot of these departments, in order to be able to do things well and inform the public well, at times you need some outside expertise," the official said.
Indeed, over the past four years, agencies have spent at least $254 million on 286 contracts with major PR agencies, according to a recent analysis of federal contracting data by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Government Reform. Agencies spent $88 million on such contracts in 2004, up from $39 million in 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration.
Not all federal agencies that hire public relations firms pay them in the same way. The National Park Service, for example, typically hires such help with private money raised by outside groups, said David Barna, chief of communications for the park service.
"When we reopened the Statue of Liberty, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation paid for a PR firm that was there to check the media in," Barna said. "They were overwhelmed. You've got one [agency] public affairs guy up there and every camera in the world was there. But I . . . made sure that they were not using park dollars or appropriated dollars for that event."
Barna tells his staff that the publicity expert provision prohibits using tax dollars for outside PR work. It is not a legal opinion, he said, just a belief acquired over 29 years of federal service. "If there's a gray area, we'd rather just live by the 'just say no' kind of rule," he said.
The outcry over the Education Department contract -- coming on the heels of the CMS flap and a similar violation involving prepackaged news reports at the Office of National Drug Control Policy -- has stoked interest in Congress for reviewing all federal agencies' PR efforts. Last week, The Washington Post reported that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher was touting Bush's "healthy marriage" initiative while working on the program under a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Bush said last week that agencies should no longer hire commentators or journalists to promote the administration's policies: "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
That was not enough for his critics. On Friday, 21 House Democrats sent a letter to the president asking him to direct every agency to turn over to Congress all public relations and advertising contracts signed during his administration.
"Covert propaganda campaigns are unethical and illegal," they wrote. "Those disclosed to date mislead the American people about public policy and deceive the news media and press about the credibility of critiques of Administration policies. We very much hope the contracts revealed to this point are an aberration and not part of a pattern across federal agencies."