updated 4/15/2005 11:46:46 PM ET 2005-04-16T03:46:46

Senior Bush administration officials showed poor judgment and wasted money in hiring conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the president’s agenda even though they violated no laws or ethics rules, an internal inquiry has concluded.

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The report released Friday also revealed that two Education Department officials had warned the White House last summer about concerns about the Williams contract, including the “inherent conflict” of paying a pundit to endorse the President Bush’s education law.

David Dunn, then-special assistant to the president for domestic policy, agreed with the concerns, yet neither the White House nor the department halted the contract until it was disclosed by the news media in January. Dunn is now chief of staff to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who distanced the White House from any blame for the hiring of Williams.

Other hirings, practices questioned
The episode has proved embarrassing for the Bush administration, which has paid at least two other conservative columnists to promote its agenda and has been criticized for distributing news videos that don’t make clear they were produced by the government.

Bush has said the hiring of Williams was wrong and that the White House did not know in advance that a pundit had been hired. Spellings said Friday that description remains true.

The review by the Education Department’s inspector general dealt only with contract law — not whether the administration has violated a ban on covert propaganda. That is the subject of another review by congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office.

Despite its findings of no legal or ethical violations, the investigation yielded an unflattering portrait of the Education Department and how it came to hire Williams. Senior officials showed poor management, information didn’t get to the right people and the agency paid for work that was poorly produced or never even reached its intended audience.

“It think this was wrong,” said Spellings, who began as secretary in January. “I think it was stupid. I think it was ill-advised. I think it showed a lack of judgment.”

Rod Paige, who led the agency when the contract was signed, did not reply to a telephone message Friday seeking comment. He has defended the contract as legal but apologized for perceptions of ethical lapses.

Paid to promote ‘No Child Left Behind’
The department paid $240,000 to Williams, a commentator with newspaper, television and radio audiences, to promote President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. The deal was part of a $1.3 million contract the department had with Ketchum, a public relations firm.

Williams, who is black, was hired to conduct “minority outreach” about Bush’s law by producing favorable ads with Paige. Yet work orders show that Williams was also hired to provide media time to Paige and to persuade other blacks in the media to talk about the law.

The hiring of a public relations firm began in part because of pressure from the White House and Congress to improve communication about No Child Left Behind, the report said.

Williams approached Paige about doing work for the department. His company was hired through Ketchum in late 2003 at the direction of the department despite some internal divisions about whether it was a good idea. Those divisions grew deeper.

When Williams’ contract came up for renewal in May 2004, Paige’s chief of staff and the department’s deputy director of communications raised concerns about whether money was being spent wisely — and whether there was a conflict in hiring a commentator. The concerns were so strong, the report said, that Dunn was told about them at the White House, and he agreed.

Asked Friday why the contract was not stopped at that point, Spellings defended Dunn. She said the White House assumes that the people hired to run federal agencies do so properly.

“How is it that David Dunn would have found something (wrong) that the inspector general didn’t find?” Spellings said. “It was a dumb thing to do, but it certainly wasn’t unlawful.”

Asking the propaganda question
In June 2004, the department’s deputy general counsel concluded a “weak argument” could be made that Williams’ hiring could run afoul of federal law banning propaganda. But when the general counsel met with Paige, that analysis never came up. According to the report, the department’s top lawyer felt Paige “would not have been interested” and only wanted to know whether the contract was “legally defensible.” The general counsel told him that it was.

Paige became upset when investigators showed him that his own department had expressed concerns in a legal analysis, the report said. He said he had never heard such concerns.

Spellings said Friday that Paige was poorly served by people around him and that those responsible for the contract are no longer at the agency — including Paige.

Spellings would not be interviewed by Inspector General Jack Higgins, asserting a principle of privacy accorded White House officials. She worked in the White House as Bush’s domestic policy adviser during his first term.

“Every American should be outraged that concerns were raised at the highest levels of the department and to the White House about the highly irregular nature of this contract,” said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who requested the investigation with Paige. He said White House officials have professed ignorance of the contract, but “this report makes it clear they were aware but failed to intervene.”

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