An internal Department of Education investigation has concluded that none of its PR contracts run afoul of the law, though the Congressman who called for the investigation sees it differently.
Department of Education Inspector General (IG) John Higgins in a new report has concluded that of the 20 DOE PR contracts and 15 grants his staff reviewed for possible violations, none qualified as covert propaganda for a variety of reasons, including that, even though unattributed, the information was fact-based, not opinion, and in other cases that DOE staffers had not intended for there to be no disclosure.
Higgins did ask for further information on four contracts for which DOe or the contractor could not supply sufficient documentation.
The IG's conclusion came despite the fact that material from 10 of the relevant grants (some were for information no sent to the public) either did not disclose the government as a source at all or did so infrequently.
The contracts and grants included for radio and TV PSA's, video news releases, and written opinion pieces. Among the contracts reviewed were two with ABC Radio and one with Radio One, all of which were determined not to be covert propaganda.
Several newspaper op eds promoting DOE policies were written by contractors without disclosing they were in the pay of the department. Higgins concluded that no DOE staffer actively solicited that outcome, but he said DOE would have to determine how much it had paid and get the money back.
Higgins report follows an earlier one, released in April, of the DOE contract with broadcaster Armstrong Williams, who was paid $250,000 to promote the "No Child Left Behind" in radio and TV shows. That review concluded the contract had been mismanaged, but also did not constitute covert propaganda.
It helped trigger a flurry of activity in Congress, including bills to ban unattributed VNR's and so-called packaged VNR's that resemle news stories, as well as a turf fight between Congress and the Bush administration.
Congress and the Justice Department disagree over the definition of covert propaganda, with Justice saying unlabeled VNR's and other commentary is not covert if it is also fact-based rather than opinion. Presdient Bush publicly endorsed that reading of the law. The Government Accountability Office, by contrast, says that if it is government-supplied, that source must be disclosed.
Accroding to law, no monies can be appropratiated for covert propaganda.
DOE takes its cue from Justice.
Rep. George Miller, senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committe, who called for the IG investigation, diagreed, calling the report evidence of "systemic covert propaganda," as well as gross mismanagement of the contracts.
“The Department is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes covert propaganda,” Miller said. “But on multiple occasions, education groups used taxpayer money – unbeknownst to taxpayers – to promote controversial federal policies."
Miller says he wants DOE to provide information it would not provide to the IG and report to Congress on how it plans to revamp its contracting process.
New DOE Secretary Margaret Spellings, who inherited the problem, pledged after the April report on Williams to take corrective measures.