WASHINGTON — Investigators at the Education Department have contacted the U.S. attorney’s office regarding the Bush administration’s hiring of commentator Armstrong Williams to promote its agenda.
The action was disclosed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who has pressed for a criminal fraud investigation focused on questions about whether Williams actually performed the work cited in his monthly reports to the Education Department.
The Government Accountability Office has concluded that the Education Department engaged in illegal “covert propaganda” by hiring Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act without requiring him to disclose that he was being paid. The Education Department’s inspector general has also reviewed the Williams deal, which was part of a broader contract that the education agency had with Ketchum, a public relations firm.
Now the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia is investigating whether Williams accepted public money without performing his required duties, said Dan Katz, chief counsel for Lautenberg. The attorney’s office has a range of potential remedies, from suing to recover the money to possible criminal charges, Katz said.
“The inspector general wouldn’t refer this to the U.S. attorney unless there was evidence of misconduct that requires further investigating,” Katz said.
Williams’ spokeswoman Shirley Dave said the commentator had not been informed about the latest development and had no comment. She had said previously that Williams was negotiating with the department to return part of the money he was paid.
The deal occurred during the tenure of former Education Secretary Rod Paige. Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey had no comment on the work of the inspector general’s office, which operates independently. Inspector General Counsel Mary Mitchelson also declined comment.
Questions of fraud?
In an Oct. 6 letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Lautenberg and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said questions of fraud remain. Lautenberg also asked the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General to more fully investigate the contract.
The inspector general’s office told Lautenberg in a letter released Friday that it was working with the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia.
“It’s bad enough the administration bribed a journalist to promote their policies, but now it looks like taxpayer dollars were handed over for work that was never done,” said Lautenberg.
Williams, a conservative black commentator, was paid to produce ads promoting the No Child Left Behind law, and to provide media time to department officials and persuade other blacks in the media to discuss the law. GAO auditors could not find the work Williams listed or could not connect the work they found to his contract.
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