Senior education officials showed poor judgment but did nothing illegal or unethical when they hired commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the administration's education policies, according to a government report released yesterday.
Education Department Inspector General John P. Higgins Jr. concluded that then-Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige and many of his top aides exercised poor judgment and bad management when they agreed to pay the conservative pundit $240,000 to promote the administration's No Child Left Behind initiative.
Much of the report's criticism focused on whether the department got its money's worth. It noted, for example, that the agency paid for advertisements that were never made or that were sometimes of poor quality. Investigators did not turn up any evidence that the administration paid Williams to personally promote its policies in his newspaper columns and television appearances. But they did not look into whether the agreement produced covert propaganda, leaving that issue to the Government Accountability Office, which is also investigating.
"The department paid for work that most likely did not reach its intended audience and paid for deliverables that were never received," the report said. "The advertisements (ads) that were produced under the work requests appear to be of poor quality, and the department has no assurance the ads received the airtime for which it paid."
Investigators said education officials approved the deal, which was part of a $1.3 million agreement with the public relations firm Ketchum Inc., because they were concerned that the president's signature legislation was not getting enough attention in poor and minority communities. They noted that the Education Department was under significant pressure from the White House and Congress to get the word out. Neither the administration nor Williams publicly disclosed the payments, which were first reported in January by USA Today.
The ensuing news reports sparked widespread criticism that the administration was crossing ethical, if not legal, boundaries in an unusually aggressive effort to sway public opinion. Two other commentators have acknowledged having been paid by the administration, which has also been criticized for distributing video news releases that did not indicate the government had produced them.
President Bush denounced the deal with Armstrong in January, saying, "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."
The IG report, along with Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, blamed the Education Department -- not the White House -- for the contract. "It was a problem that originated at the department and ultimately is a problem that will continue to be fixed here," she said in response to the report. "The senior appointees who were responsible for the contract no longer work at the department."
Spellings added that the department will try to recoup some of the wasted money and will embrace the IG's recommendations for providing better oversight of agency contracts.
The report said that Education Department officials who were concerned about the Williams contract took their complaints last summer to David Dunn, who was then the special assistant to the president for domestic policy and is now Spellings's chief of staff. The report noted that Dunn "indicated he agreed with their concerns" but did not explain why the White House did not end the arrangement. Spellings said it would be unreasonable to assume Dunn knew all the details of the contract.
The report came one day after Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, accused the administration of stonewalling the investigation. He said the IG told him earlier this week that his investigators were not allowed to interview White House officials. Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said inspectors general are never allowed to investigate there.
"By statute, an IG's jurisdiction is limited to his or her own agency. An IG is authorized to request information from other federal agencies, but not from the White House office, and courts have ruled in many contests that the White House is not a federal agency," Perino said.
She said investigators were allowed to interview Dunn because he worked temporarily at the Education Department. Spellings, who was a domestic policy adviser to the president when the contract was signed, was not interviewed as part of the investigation. Spellings said yesterday that she had considered but ultimately decided against using an obscure legal privilege that would have allowed her to redact information from the report before it was released to the public.
Miller's office, which asked the inspector general Thursday to delay the report's release until after the White House has complied with his requests for interviews, reiterated its complaints yesterday, saying the investigation did not present a complete picture of how the Williams deal was brokered.
"The congressman still feels that there's a real concern here about the fact that there might have been people who had information about this contract that the IG couldn't talk to," spokesman Thomas Kiley said.