Money for Nothing, and the News Ain’t Free

Since Armstrong Williams was outed as a paid shill for the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) bill in January, it has been reported that several other journalists and talking heads have similarly been on the federal gravy train. Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus both were busted for having received payment from federal agencies to push Bush administration policies as if they were writing op-eds in their capacity as “experts” in their given fields.

On Friday, the Department of Education took the first steps toward giving a public accounting of its costly relationship with Williams (costly to the government, lucrative to Williams). Its report is a distinctly underwhelming document (2.3 MB PDF), which does little more than detail the department’s PR contracts with Ketchum Communications and Williams. For starters, the department’s inspector general’s review dealt only with contract law — not whether the administration violated a ban on covert propaganda. For that, we have to wait for a review by congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office.

As the report notes in its conclusion, while mistakes were made, no one at the top really seems to care all that much: “While the Department did not explicitly violate any significant laws or regulations relevant to the formation of the Ketchum contract or GWG [Graham Williams Group, of which Williams is CEO] work requests, [it] did make a series of bad management decisions, including the failure to share critical information with decision makers, and exercised poor judgment and oversight.”

The most interesting part comes when the department’s investigators reveal that in the summer of 2004, two Education Department officials warned the White House about the “inherent conflict” of paying a pundit to push the administration’s education law. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “David Dunn, then-special assistant to the president for domestic policy, agreed with the concerns, yet neither the White House nor the department halted the contract until it was disclosed by the news media in January. Dunn is now chief of staff to [Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings], who distanced the White House from any blame for the hiring of Williams.”

So it appears that despite its claims to the contrary, the White House did know about the Williams contract. The Los Angeles Times picked up on this angle Saturday, calling into question President Bush’s contention in January that “We didn’t know about this in the White House.”

If the report’s conclusions seem somewhat muted, it’s for good reason: The Bush administration appears unwilling to cooperate. Representative George Miller (D-California) told the New York Times on Friday that as far as the upcoming GAO report is concerned, “the inspector general had been ‘denied access’ to some current and former White House employees and that … Margaret Spellings was considering invoking special privileges that would force the investigator to shield parts of his findings from the public.” As a result, Miller has asked Inspector General Jack Higgins to postpone issuing the report until the administration begins to come clean. “The public’s right to know is absolutely more important than any claim of privilege that the White House or the Department of Education might make. The public has a right to all the facts about possible misconduct,” Miller said in a statement.

We’ll second that, and while we’re all waiting for the GAO report on the Williams payola scandal to come out, it’s with tempered expectations. If the administration continues to successfully stonewall investigators, chances are that we’ve already heard all we’re going to hear on this one.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.