Monday, October 03, 2005

This Is Not A Scandal (?)

According to a report in today's Detroit Free Press, Armstrong Williams is negotiating to return some of the money that he was paid under a government contract.  You may recall that  Mr. Williams is a news commentator, and that he received $186,000 in order to publicly endorse the pending No Child Left Behind legislation.

According to the Free Press (actually, the article was written by a staff reporter for USA Today), Mr. WIlliams is going to return some of the money, because he did not actually do what he had agreed to do, under the terms of the contract:
Commentator to return federal cash

October 3, 2005


[...] Federal investigators, in findings issued Friday, said the contract violated a government ban on covert propaganda. Investigators said the Williams contract and others -- including a government-produced video made to look like a news report -- amounted to illegal propaganda because the government's role wasn't made clear to viewers or readers.

Williams, a prominent conservative columnist and pundit, denied some central findings of the investigation and said he was negotiating to return some of his fees because he didn't promote the law or ask others to do so, as the contract required. [...]
This would give the impression that the government paid for work that was not actually done.  I guess that would be bad: a case of poor oversight; not a scandal.  But the article is misleading.  The GAO report does not say merely that the contract violated a ban.  Rather, it says that the contract was illegal.  It says that our government used our own money to disseminate propaganda to us:
As explained below, we find that the Department contracted for Armstrong Williams to comment regularly on the No Child Left Behind Act without assuring that the Department’s role was disclosed to the targeted audiences. This violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition for fiscal year 2004 because it amounted to covert propaganda. As a result of this violation, the Department also violated the Antideficiency Act, 31 U.S.C. sect. 1341.
The provisions of the Antideficiency Act are here, in case you are curious about this curiously-named legislation.  

There is a similar article in the NYT, but the NYT does not mince words:
Buying of News by Bush's Aides Is Ruled Illegal

Published: October 1, 2005

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 - 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. [...]
That is more accurate.  They broke the law.  President Bush's Department of Education broke the law.  

Mr. Williams now says that he did not do what he was hired to do.  If that is true, then maybe that part of the problem goes away.  But the other two acts (buying favorable news coverage, and hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party) remain.  So the GAO has ruled that the law was broken three times, but maybe, if we can believe Mr. Williams, there were only two illegal activities, plus one instance of poor oversight.  

Now, for a special treat.  We get to find out how effective this blog post was, and we do not have to spend any tax dollars to do it: