by Robert Pear
Washington – Federal auditors said on Friday that the Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush’s education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party.
In a blistering report, the investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said the administration had disseminated “covert propaganda” in the United States, in violation of a statutory ban.
The contract with Mr. Williams and the general contours of the public relations campaign had been known for months. The report Friday provided the first definitive ruling on the legality of the activities.
Lawyers from the accountability office, an independent nonpartisan arm of Congress, found that the administration systematically analyzed news articles to see if they carried the message, “The Bush administration/the GOP is committed to education.”
The auditors declared: “We see no use for such information except for partisan political purposes. Engaging in a purely political activity such as this is not a proper use of appropriated funds.”
The report also sharply criticized the Education Department for telling Ketchum Inc., a public relations company, to pay Mr. Williams for newspaper columns and television appearances praising Mr. Bush’s education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act.
When that arrangement became public, it set off widespread criticism. At a news conference in January, Mr. Bush said: “We will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.”
But the Education Department has since defended its payments to Mr. Williams, saying his commentaries were “no more than the legitimate dissemination of information to the public.”
The GAO said the Education Department had no money or authority to “procure favorable commentary in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition” in federal law.
The ruling comes with no penalty, but under federal law the department is supposed to report the violations to the White House and Congress.
In the course of its work, the accountability office discovered a previously undisclosed instance in which the Education Department had commissioned a newspaper article. The article, on the “declining science literacy of students,” was distributed by the North American Precis Syndicate and appeared in numerous small newspapers around the country. Readers were not informed of the government’s role in the writing of the article, which praised the department’s role in promoting science education.
The auditors denounced a prepackaged television story disseminated by the Education Department. The segment, a “video news release” narrated by a woman named Karen Ryan, said that President Bush’s program for providing remedial instruction and tutoring to children “gets an A-plus.”
Ms. Ryan also narrated two videos praising the new Medicare drug benefit last year. In those segments, as in the education video, the narrator ended by saying, “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”
The television news segments on education and on Medicare did not state that they had been prepared and distributed by the government. The GAO did not say how many stations carried the reports.
The public relations efforts came to light weeks before Margaret Spellings became education secretary in January. Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the secretary, said on Friday that Ms. Spellings regarded the efforts as “stupid, wrong and ill-advised.” She said Ms. Spellings had taken steps “to ensure these types of missteps don’t happen again.”
The investigation by the accountability office was requested by Senators Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, both Democrats. Mr. Lautenberg expressed concern about a section of the report in which investigators said they could not find records to confirm that Mr. Williams had performed all the activities for which he billed the government.
The Education Department said it had paid Ketchum $186,000 for services performed by Mr. Williams’s company. But it could not provide transcripts of speeches, articles or records of other services invoiced by Mr. Williams, the report said.
In March, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said that federal agencies did not have to acknowledge their role in producing television news segments if they were factual. The inspector general of the Education Department recently reiterated that position.
But the accountability office said on Friday: “The failure of an agency to identify itself as the source of a prepackaged news story misleads the viewing public by encouraging the audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information. The prepackaged news stories are purposefully designed to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public. When the television viewing public does not know that the stories they watched on television news programs about the government were in fact prepared by the government, the stories are, in this sense, no longer purely factual. The essential fact of attribution is missing.”
The office said Mr. Williams’s work for the government resulted from a written proposal that he submitted to the Education Department in March 2003. The department directed Ketchum to use Mr. Williams as a regular commentator on Mr. Bush’s education policies. Ketchum had a federal contract to help publicize those policies, signed by Mr. Bush in 2002.
The Education Department flouted the law by telling Ketchum to use Mr. Williams to “convey a message to the public on behalf of the government, without disclosing to the public that the messengers were acting on the government’s behalf and in return for the payment of public funds,” the GAO said.
The Education Department spent $38,421 for production and distribution of the video news release and $96,850 for the evaluation of newspaper articles and radio and television programs. Ketchum assigned a score to each article, indicating how often and favorably it mentioned features of the new education law.
Congress tried to clarify the ban on “covert propaganda” in a bill signed by Mr. Bush in May. The law says that no federal money may be used to produce or distribute a news story unless the government’s role is openly acknowledged.