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Report: Education Dept.'s PR funds need oversight

By Greg Toppo

Federal investigators probing the Education Department's public relations contracts have found a pattern of deals in which advocacy organizations received grants totaling nearly $4.7 million to promote Bush administration education priorities in newspaper columns and brochures, but didn't disclose that they received taxpayer funds, as required by law.

The department's inspector general says he detected no "covert propaganda," but he told administration officials to consider asking for some of their money back.

The report, released on the Education Department's Web site Thursday night, said the department needs to do a better job monitoring how millions of dollars in grants are spent. More than $1.7 million, for example, went to outside public relations contracts that officials said resulted in no visible media products. (Related item: Full report )

The report comes nearly five months after the inspector general criticized the department for its $240,000 contract with commentator Armstrong Williams. That contract called for him to promote President Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind education reform law in newspaper columns and on his syndicated TV show, and to encourage others to do the same.

After USA TODAY first reported on the Williams deal, several other agencies revealed that freelance commentators wrote pieces promoting Bush administration policies on marriage and on the environment without disclosing they'd received government funds either to write the pieces or to support their interest groups.

In the new report, Inspector General John Higgins found that more than $7.7 million in grants and contracts were either properly notated with government disclaimers or hadn't been disseminated to the public. He also found that Education Department personnel in several instances told groups that the disclaimers were required.

Higgins found that in 10 of 11 cases examined, groups didn't disclose in print, on radio or in other media, such as brochures or handbooks that taxpayer funds were used.

"The Department of Education is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes covert propaganda," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the probe.

"But this report shows that, in case after case after case, grantees without disclosing who was paying them took taxpayers' money and used it to promote controversial policies," Miller said. "Either the department is grossly incompetent when it comes to awarding grants and contracts, or it is misleading investigators and engaging in a coverup of the misuse of taxpayer dollars."

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' response, filed with the report, agreed with most of the investigators' findings.


Following the money for public relations efforts

Inspector General John Higgins' report cites several examples of taxpayer-funded groups publishing opinion-page newspaper articles or other media without disclosing their federal grants. Among them:

$1.3 million over three years to the Black Alliance for Educational Options for a "multi-layered media campaign."

Two unsolicited grants, totaling $900,000, in 2003 and 2004, to the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options. A group leader, Marcela Garcini, took the Dallas school system to task in two columns in The Dallas Morning News and one that appeared in two Spanish-language publications.

Her Morning News column on Oct. 10, 2004, blasted the school system for "limiting the future and opportunities for our children. I am tired of hearing excuses about the lack of funding for schools, particularly under No Child Left Behind."

The defense of the Bush administration plan appeared 23 days before the Nov. 2 election.

$1.6 million to ZGS Communications, for which officials couldn't fully account; Higgins said he still wants to review it. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the department would review all related records.

$2,650 awarded to North American Precis Syndicate (NAPS), which produced what amounted to a 284-word infomercial for the National Center for Education Statistics Web site.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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