DOE: Willams Deal Mismanaged, Not Illegal

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The Department of Education's public-relations contracts with Ketchum Inc. and conservative columnist Armstrong Williams may not have violated any "significant" laws or regulations, but they were severely mismanaged, with the result that the DOE paid for work that was not received, that "most likely" didn't reach its target audience and that was "of poor quality," DOE inspector general John P. Higgins has concluded.

Williams was paid a quarter million dollars as a subcontractor to Ketchum to plug DOE's  "no child left behind" program, including producing ads.

While the report concluded that the payment went "solely to the production of ads and airtime," it found "the Department has no assurance the ads received the airtime for which it paid."

In addition, because "the body of the Ketchum proposal also indicated that Mr. Williams would regularly comment on NCLB (no child left behind) during the course of his broadcasts, the appearance is that the department may have been paying for more than just the advertising," the IG's report concluded.

It is that pay-for-play element that so enraged administration critics.

Adding to that pay-for-play perception was the fact that some department staffers interviewed by Higgins suggested Williams got the contract in the first place because of the previous Education Secretary's desire to "get on a certain television talk show."
Even so, the report found "no evidence of any ethical violations in the formation of the Ketchum contract."

Current DOE Secretary Margaret Spellings "embraced the recommendations" of the report--which were mostly about better accountability and oversight, but also included trying to recoup some of the money for deliverables that apparently weren't delivered.

Spellings said she has already taken some steps to correct the situation. She is  trying to get some of the money back, she said, has initiated a review of all PR contracts, and has created a new assistant secretary of communications and outreach position.

Unlike the issue of undisclosed government video news releases, which President George W. Bush has defended so long as they are factual, the President has told administration officials to nix pay-for-play contracts like Williams'

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who requested the IG investigation, said: “The report of the Inspector General paints a very troubling picture of irresponsible – and potentially criminal – mismanagement of expensive contracts by the Department of Education.

“It appears likely that substantial sums were paid not only for commercials that were never produced, but for Mr. Williams’ political commentaries," Miller said Friday.

"The issue of whether the subcontract with Mr. Williams violated anti-propaganda laws will be determined by the Government Accountability Office.  In addition, broader issues of other contracting failures, including violations of the anti-propaganda laws, will be addressed in the next phase of the Education IG’s report."

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