updated 1/14/2005 6:46:26 PM ET 2005-01-14T23:46:26

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission ordered an investigation Friday into whether conservative commentator Armstrong Williams broke the law by failing to disclose he was paid by the Bush administration to plug the president’s education agenda.

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The investigation relates to provisions that require disclosure of such arrangements, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a brief statement.

Also Friday, two Democratic senators asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, to review whether any other federal agencies have paid commentators to support the administration’s agenda.

'Political payola'
Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether the Education Department’s payment to Williams violated a ban on propaganda — and, if so, to determine who should be held accountable.

“There are real questions whether this is a real expenditure,” Dorgan said in an interview. “This has all the makings of political payola.”

The FCC and GAO probes are the latest in a growing controversy over Williams’ deal with the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

Williams was paid $240,000 as part of at least a $1.3 million commitment the department had with a public relations firm, Ketchum. Williams produced ads with Education Secretary Rod Paige to promote the controversial law.

He was also hired to provide media time to Paige and to persuade other blacks in media to talk about the sweeping education reforms, records show.

Education agency plans review
On Thursday, Paige announced his department had opened an internal review. Democratic and Republican members of a Senate panel that oversees education funding demanded department records related to the case.

President Bush, in an interview published Friday in USA Today, said, “The Cabinet needs to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

The announcement from Powell, a Republican, came as FCC officials said thousands of complaints had come into the agency regarding Williams. No precise number was available Friday. Free Press, a media reform advocacy group, had said it was forwarding more than 12,000 complaints to the FCC.

“In this era of huge corporate media, it is becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between news and entertainment, to differentiate between information and propaganda,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, said Friday.

TV stations could face scrutiny
An investigation could also extend to the stations that carried the program if the broadcaster knew of Williams’ arrangement but did not make that clear to viewers, FCC officials have said.

Powell on Friday also ordered the FCC to investigate a radio station programmer in Buffalo, N.Y., who was fired by Entercom Communications Corp. for breaking the station’s rules against taking gifts from business contacts.

Critics contend that incident and the Williams case are similar because they may be violations of so-called “payola” statutes.

The law requires disclosure of any payment or gift for airing any material for broadcast, such as a radio disc jockey being paid to play a particular recording.

In the request to the GAO, Dorgan and Wyden also asked for a government-wide review of any payments to journalists, commentators or talk show hosts to promote the administration’s policies.

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