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NCLB Outrages

Pundit Armstrong Williams settles case over promoting education reforms

Interesting that the Justice Department failed to examine whether what Williams was contracted to do was illegal.

Miller's statement is the ultimate cop-out of a corporate politico.


By Greg Toppo

WASHINGTON Conservative pundit Armstrong Williams, whose 2003 deal to promote President Bush's education reforms on TV, radio and in newspapers spawned a government-wide crackdown on propaganda, will pay $34,000 for not delivering all that his contract required, according to documents signed Friday.

The settlement puts to rest a civil investigation that stretched more than a year and a half and could have cost Williams $64,000 but which did not address whether he wrongly promoted the Bush administration's education agenda. Instead, the Justice Department investigation examined whether he was paid for public service ads he didn't produce.

Under the settlement, Williams admits no wrongdoing. He did not face criminal charges in the case, says Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office within the Justice Department.

"The (Education) Department is pleased to see this matter come to a close," Katherine McLane, spokesperson for Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Friday. "As one of her first actions at the Department, Secretary Spellings took aggressive action to correct the situation and create clear guidelines to prevent future occurrences."

Williams has long contended that the $240,000 deal, inked in December 2003, paid him only to produce two television and two radio ads featuring then-Education Secretary Rod Paige. Williams ultimately produced one radio ad and one TV ad before the contract was suspended, says Keith Morgan, deputy chief of the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

But Williams, seeking to defend his ethics as a commentator, says he never promoted Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law in his syndicated TV and radio shows or in his newspaper column, as the contract required. The Justice Department didn't pursue the propaganda case, but a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's non-partisan watchdog, found that the contract violated a government ban on "covert propaganda."

The Education Department's inspector general (IG) also criticized the contract, under which Williams, in addition to producing the videos, also agreed "to regularly comment on" and promote the law during his syndicated TV show and to encourage other minority commentators to do the same.

The Justice Department pursued Williams under the federal False Claims Act, which deals with false or fraudulent billing to the U.S. government. If the government had taken the case to trial, Williams could have faced about $64,000 in penalties for work that he was paid for but didn't do.

Williams, a conservative black commentator and former USA TODAY columnist who now co-hosts a drive-time radio talk show, is also a partner in the Graham Williams Group, a Washington public relations firm.

Part of a $1.3 million contract the U.S. Education Department had with the Ketchum public relations firm, the Williams deal specified that he use his contacts with America's Black Forum, a group of black broadcast journalists, "to encourage the producers to periodically address" NCLB. Bush's signature education law, it was under fire in minority communities in 2003. The 2002 law demands that schools serving poor children improve their basic performance or face mounting sanctions.

USA TODAY obtained a copy of the contract through a Freedom of Information Act request and first reported on its contents in January 2005. The Education Department suspended the Ketchum contract shortly thereafter.

At the time, Williams said, "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in." He now says he never intended to promote the law covertly and never urged anyone else to do the same. In an Oct. 13 interview at his Washington office, he said, "I never, in the history of that contract, influenced anyone and asked them to talk about No Child Left Behind."

He never demanded that the language be deleted from the contract because he feared a delay might kill it. But he added, "I made it clear I was not going to go out and influence ethnic journalists, nor did anybody try to go out and enforce it."

He said a top Education Department official told him, "We'll deal with it you don't have to do it."

In an April 2005 report, the Education Department's inspector general found that department officials didn't recall talking to Williams about the matter and that Williams himself pitched the idea of using his PR connections to generate "favorable commentaries" in the media. Paige asked his staff to examine Williams' proposal.

In last week's interview, Williams acknowledged approaching Paige about a video proposal, but said a department official added the language about promoting NCLB.

Williams could not produce a copy of his original proposal, saying he often discards them in the course of business. The IG report noted several indicators that Williams proposed "favorable NCLB commentary." It quoted part of the proposal: "Having contacts with people who influence local and national opinion will pay off by getting you at least balanced coverage of what could be a nasty defensive PR situation," it said.

The IG report quoted Williams' proposal as saying his ability to get favorable commentaries from prominent black opinion-makers such as Russ Parr and Stevie Wonder "will amount to passive endorsements from the media outlets that carry them media outlets that speak most directly and potentially to the African American and broader community."

In the Oct. 13 interview, Williams said his only wrongdoing was writing about NCLB in his syndicated column without mentioning the Ketchum contract to Tribune Syndicate. He lost the column after USA TODAY disclosed the deal.

Since then, several Cabinet-level agencies have revealed that they paid freelance commentators to write pieces promoting administration policies on marriage and on the environment without disclosing the arrangements either to write the pieces or to support their interest groups.

"Hopefully they've learned their lesson they've stopped engaging in propaganda" said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today
2006-10-20


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