updated 10/18/2007 9:31:30 PM ET 2007-10-19T01:31:30

The government on Thursday proposed fines totaling $76,000 against two broadcast companies for failing to tell viewers that programs featuring columnist Armstrong Williams were sponsored by the Education Department.

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In 2003, Williams signed a contract with the department for $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. Williams did not reveal the existence of the contract even as he expressed his support for it on the air.

The revelation about Williams led to widespread criticism by lawmakers who said the payments to Armstrong and other contractors amounted to covert propaganda and were an improper use of taxpayer dollars. Williams is a syndicated conservative columnist and TV personality.

The Federal Communications Commission says the stations violated sponsorship identification rules by not revealing Williams’ financial relationship.

Williams could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

According to an FCC document filed Thursday, Sonshine Family Television Inc., licensee of WBPH-TV in Bethlehem, Pa., is liable for a fine of $40,000 for airing five episodes of “The Right Side with Armstrong Williams.”

The shows aired on 10 occasions in the first half of 2004 and included Williams speaking about the education law.

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. of Baltimore was hit with a proposed fine of $36,000 for airing an episode of “America’s Black Forum” in September of 2004, which also included Williams talking about the legislation.

The Sinclair stations involved are WABM-TV in Birmingham, Ala.; KSMO-TV in Kansas City, Mo.; WVTV-TV in Milwaukee, Wis.; WUXP-TV in Nashville, Tenn.; KOCB-TV and WEAR-TV in Pensacola, Fla; WPMY-TV in Pittsburgh; KABB-TV in San Antonio; and WTWC-TV in Tallahassee, Fla.

Sonshine told the FCC its agreement with Williams “called for payment of a nominal fee of $100” for each broadcast, and therefore shouldn’t be considered sponsorship. While the fee may have been small, it did not excuse the broadcaster from informing viewers the program was sponsored, the FCC said.

In Sinclair’s case, Armstrong appeared on an episode entitled “2004 Election Countdown.” While the company was not paid to air the program, the FCC said the fact that the program was political in nature meant it required sponsorship identification.

Sinclair argued that “it simply did not know, and had no reason to know, that the program required any identification.”

The investigation took place following a complaint from Free Press, a public interest media watchdog group, and “several thousand other complainants” according to the FCC.

In a joint statement, FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein said the action shows broadcasters have a legal obligation to “alert the public to any payola punditry and places the industry on notice that the commission will act to ensure the public is protected from special interest groups who attempt to trick the public.”

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