Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige yesterday defended payments to a conservative black commentator to promote the No Child Left Behind law as a standard "outreach effort" to minority groups who stand to benefit most from the Bush administration's showcase education program.
Paige, the nation's first African American education secretary, said in a statement that he was deeply disturbed by the publicity surrounding the $240,000 contract. He announced an investigation by the Department of Education's inspector general to clear up any unresolved issues so as not to "sully the fine people and good name of this department."
A Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education spending has asked the department to turn over records relating to the payments to Armstrong Williams, a conservative television personality, to plug the education law. The panel reminded the department of a federal ban on spending public money for "propaganda" purposes.
The ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. George Miller of California, criticized Paige for not apologizing or pledging to put an end to "covert propaganda efforts."
In his statement, Paige said the money paid Williams's company, the Graham Williams Group, "went exclusively" to the production of advertisements promoting the No Child Left Behind law.
"The funds covered those costs alone and nothing more. All this has been reviewed and is legal," Paige said.
Documents released last week by the department under the Freedom of Information Act stipulated that Williams would use his relationships with black television producers to encourage them to "periodically address" issues raised by No Child Left Behind. The contract also envisaged on-air interviews featuring Paige and other Education Department officials with Williams, the host of a syndicated TV show, "The Right Side."
Williams has apologized for what he described as "a lapse of judgment" in agreeing to the contract, which he did not disclose to viewers. Like Paige, he has insisted that he has done nothing illegal.
Paige described the furor surrounding the payments to Williams as "certainly not the legacy I wish to leave behind." A former school superintendent in Houston, he is scheduled to step down in the next few weeks after the expected Senate confirmation of his successor, Margaret Spellings, who previously served in the White House as Bush's top domestic policy adviser.
In a letter to Paige, senior Republican and Democrat Appropriations lawmakers asked him to provide a list of money spent by the Education Department on public relations activities between 2002 and 2004. The department has acknowledged paying the public relations firm Ketchum Inc. $700,000 to rate journalists on how positively or negatively they report on No Child Left Behind, and to produce a video on the law that was used by some television stations as if it were real news.
The letter was signed by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education spending.