WASHINGTON – The Bush administration paid a prominent commentator to promote the No Child Left Behind schools law to fellow blacks and to give the education secretary media time, records show.
A company run by Armstrong Williams, the syndicated commentator, was paid $240,000 by the Education Department. The goal was to deliver positive messages about Bush’s education overhaul, using Williams’ broad reach with minorities.
The deal, which drew a fast rebuke from Democrats on Capitol Hill, is the latest to put the department on the defensive for the way it has promoted Bush’s signature domestic policy.
The contract required Williams’ company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV ads that feature one-minute “reads” by Education Secretary Rod Paige. The deal also allowed Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.
Williams, one of the leading black conservative voices in the country, also was to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to talk about No Child Left Behind.
The law, a centerpiece of President Bush’s domestic agenda, aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children, with penalties for many schools that don’t make progress.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the decisions on the practice were made by the Education Department. He did not directly answer when asked whether the White House approved of the practice, saying it was a department matter.
The Education Department defended its decision as a “permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures.” The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, the department said.
Williams called criticism of his relationship with the department “legitimate.”
“It’s a fine line,” he told the Associated Press on Friday. “Even though I’m not a journalist – I’m a commentator – I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn’t do it again, and I learned from it.”
Three Democratic senators – Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Harry Reid of Nevada – wrote Bush on Friday to demand he recover the money paid to Armstrong. The lawmakers contended that “the act of bribing journalists to bias their news in favor of government policies undermines the integrity of our democracy.”