TV Host Says U.S. Paid Him to Back Policy
Armstrong Williams, a prominent conservative commentator who was a protégé of Senator Strom Thurmond and Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court, acknowledged yesterday that he was paid $240,000 by the Department of Education to promote its initiatives on his syndicated television program and to other African-Americans in the news media.
The disclosure of the payment set off a storm of criticism from Democrats over the Bush administration's spending to promote its policies to the public. According to a copy of the contract provided by the department yesterday, Mr. Williams, who also runs a small public relations firm and until yesterday wrote a syndicated newspaper column, was required to broadcast two one-minute advertisements in which Education Secretary Rod Paige extolled the merits of its national standards program, No Child Left Behind.
But the arrangement, which started in late 2003 and was first reported yesterday by USA Today, also stipulated that a public relations firm hired by the department would "arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on N.C.L.B. during the course of his broadcasts," that "Secretary Paige and other department officials shall have the option of appearing from time to time as studio guests," and that "Mr. Williams shall utilize his long-term working relationships with 'America's Black Forum' " - an African-American news program - "to encourage the producers to periodically address the No Child Left Behind Act."
Mr. Williams, 45, apologized yesterday for blurring his roles as an independent commentator and a paid promoter. "This is a great lesson to me," he told Paul Begala of CNN, who himself has an off-air job as a paid Democratic political consultant but discloses both roles.
Mr. Williams declined to blame the department for his woes. "I can easily sit here and criticize the administration," he said. "But I got my own problems today, and that is what I am trying to deal with."
The disclosure about the arrangement coincides with a decision by the Government Accountability Office that the administration had violated a law against unauthorized federal propaganda by distributing television news segments that promoted drug enforcement policies without identifying their origin. More than 300 news programs reaching more than 22 million households broadcast the segments. The accountability office made a similar ruling in May about news segments promoting Medicare policies, and the Drug Enforcement Agency stopped distributing the segments then.
In a statement, the Department of Education said yesterday that the deal was an appropriate part of its efforts to explain its policy to "minority parents." The statement said: "The contract paid to provide the straightforward distribution of information about the department's mission and N.C.L.B. - a permissible use of taxpayer funds."
John Gibbons, a spokesman for the department, said Mr. Williams was the only broadcaster or journalist paid to promote the policy. Mr. Williams and department officials said the department's payments to its public relations contractor, Ketchum, ran to $1 million.
House Democrats including the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and Representative George Miller, senior minority member of the Education and Workforce Committee, both of California, released a letter to the president suggesting "a deliberate pattern of behavior by your administration to deceive the public and the media in an effort to further your policy objectives" and urging disclosure of "all past and ongoing efforts to engage in covert propaganda."
Questioned about the arrangement, Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the president, referred reporters to the Department of Education.
In an interview, Mr. Miller called the release of the news segments and the payments to Mr. Williams part of "
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