The Bush administration paid a prominent black journalist to promote President Bush's education law and give Education Secretary Rod Paige media time, records show.
Armstrong Williams, a nationally syndicated radio, print and television personality, was paid $240,000 by the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.
The contract required Williams' company, the Graham Williams Group, to produce radio and TV ads that promote the controversial law and feature one-minute "reads" by Paige. The deal also allowed Paige and other department officials to appear as studio guests with Williams.
Williams, one of the leading black conservative voices in the country, was also to use his influence with other black journalists to get them to talk about No Child Left Behind.
The law, the centerpiece of President Bush's domestic agenda, aims to raise achievement among poor and minority children, with penalties for many schools that don't make progress.
USA Today, which first reported the arrangement, said Williams was contractually obligated to "to regularly comment on NCLB [No Child Left Behind Act] during the course of his broadcasts."
The newspaper quoted Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, as saying the contract was "a very questionable use of taxpayers' money" and is "probably illegal."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the decisions on the practice were made by the Education Department. He did not directly answer when asked whether the White House approved of the practice, saying it was a department matter.
The Education Department defended its decision as a "permissible use of taxpayer funds under legal government contracting procedures." The point was to help parents, particularly in poor and minority communities, understand the benefits of the law, the department said.
The department's contract with Williams, through the public relations firm Ketchum, dates to 2003 and 2004. It is billed as a "minority outreach campaign" with the goal of "educating the African-American community" about the education law.
Williams, who worked as an intern to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond years ago, called criticism of his relationship with the department "legitimate."
"It's a fine line," he said. "Even though I'm not a journalist — I'm a commentator — I feel I should be held to the media ethics standard. My judgment was not the best. I wouldn't do it again, and I learned from it."
This is not the first time the department has come under fire for its publicity efforts.
The Bush administration has promoted No Child Left Behind with a video that comes across as a news story but fails to make clear the reporter involved was paid with taxpayer money. It has also has paid for rankings of newspaper coverage of the law, with points awarded for stories that say Mr. Bush and the Republican Party are strong on education. The Government Accountability Office, Congress' auditing arm, is investigating those spending decisions.
"There is no defense for using taxpayer dollars to pay journalists for 'fake news' and favorable coverage of a federal program," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that has tracked the department's spending. "It's a scandalous waste."