The Government Accountability Office said yesterday that federal payments to commentator Armstrong Williams to promote President Bush's education law were illegal but that a contract with syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher for work on the administration's marriage initiative was not.

The columnists and the Cabinet departments that hired them came under intense criticism earlier this year after disclosures that Williams was paid by the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act and that Gallagher was paid by the Department of Health and Human Services to work on Bush's marriage initiative. Williams received $186,000 and Gallagher got $21,500, the GAO said. Critics said the administration was pushing its agenda under the guise of independent commentary.

The GAO said the Education Department violated a ban on covert propaganda in 2003 by hiring Williams to endorse the education law in his newspaper columns and in television appearances, and by failing to require him to disclose the arrangement to his audiences. The report noted that, in his pitch to the department, Williams proposed to "win the battle for media space" with commentaries that "will amount to passive endorsements from the media outlets that carry them."

In a separate report, the GAO concluded that HHS did nothing wrong in 2002 when it hired Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and a columnist specializing in marriage issues, to serve as a consultant in the research and development of initiatives to strengthen marriage. Gallagher prepared a presentation for managers of the Administration for Children and Families, helped create brochures, and helped draft an article for an agency official.

Such work did not violate the publicity and propaganda ban because the materials produced were not "self-aggrandizing" or purely partisan and did not mask the government's role in creating them, the GAO said. And while both Williams and Gallagher published favorable commentary about the Bush initiatives, only Williams was explicitly paid to do so. "Ms. Gallagher chose, on her own, to perform these activities," the report said.

Both Williams and Gallagher have said they should have told their audiences about their work for the administration.

The GAO also found that a $38,421 prepackaged news story on the education law violated the propaganda ban because the video did not disclose the government's role in producing it. A $96,850 effort in which the public relations firm Ketchum Inc. rated news coverage of the new law was generally within the Education Department's authority but should not have evaluated news treatment of the Republican Party, the GAO said.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who requested the GAO investigations, said the reports reveal a pattern of abuse. They said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings should recover the money paid to Williams and Ketchum.

The administration took money "that should have gone towards helping kids learn and diverted it to a political propaganda campaign," Lautenberg said in a statement.

Susan Aspey, an Education Department spokeswoman, said new rules will prevent any more "missteps."

She said by e-mail: "We've said for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong and ill-advised."