USDA Paid Freelance Writer $7,500 for Articles

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

An Agriculture Department agency paid a freelance writer at least $7,500 to write articles touting federal conservation programs and place them in outdoors magazines, according to agency records and interviews.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service hired freelancer Dave Smith in September 2003 to "research and write articles for hunting and fishing magazines describing the benefits of NRCS Farm Bill programs to wildlife habitat and the environment," according to agency procurement documents obtained by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Smith, contracted to craft five stories for $1,875 each, also was to "contact and work magazine editors to place the articles in targeted publications," the records show.

The disclosure of the contract comes as the Bush administration is under scrutiny for its controversial public relations practices, including payments to journalists to promote administration policies and government-produced "video news releases" that resemble broadcast news stories.

President Bush said the government should no longer put journalists on the payroll after disclosures earlier this year that commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $241,000 by the Education Department to promote Bush's education policy and columnist Maggie Gallagher received $21,500 from the Department of Health and Human Services to work on the president's marriage initiative.

Smith, 38, said yesterday that he wrote five articles for the agency but got only three published before joining the NRCS last year as a biologist in the Missoula, Mont., office. Smith said he was paid between $7,500 and $7,800 on the contract, but the total could have been as much as $9,375.

He said he was working as a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game in 2003 when an NRCS public relations staffer called to ask him if he would accept the writing assignment.

David Gagner, chief of staff at the NRCS, said the in-house communications staff lacked the expertise to spread the word about how the 2002 farm bill expanded the agency's role in wildlife and environmental conservation.

"At the time we truly didn't think we had somebody who was a good enough expert on these issues, and that type of writer," Gagner said. "We've got a pretty small staff. It's not a big agency."

The agency helps farmers, ranchers and other landowners reduce soil erosion, protect water supplies and conserve and restore wildlife habitat. Its programs include the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which encourages the protection of plant and animal habitat, and the Wetlands Reserve Program, which helps landowners restore wetlands.

Outdoor Oklahoma, a bimonthly magazine published by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, ran two of Smith's stories last year, one on the wetlands program's impact on waterfowl, and the other a profile of landowners involved in conservation projects. A third article, about wetlands projects in eastern Oregon, ran in the November 2004 issue of Washington-Oregon Game & Fish magazine, which is owned by New York-based Primedia Inc., a publisher of more than 120 consumer magazines.

"From NRCS's standpoint, it all reflected . . . very positively on the agency and what they were doing," Smith said. "It was just another method of getting their success stories out in the mass media."

Smith said he told magazine editors of his government contract, and he received no fee from the publications. One of the Outdoor Oklahoma articles was accompanied by a note identifying Smith as a freelance writer who works as a biologist for the agency. None of the articles appear to disclose his federal contract.

Gagner said the agency's intention was not to hide its role. And while the agency would consider such an arrangement again, "we would make sure there was somewhere in the article that says . . . that that writing was done by, for" the agency, he said.

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