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FCC to probe radio host's deal with White House

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission ordered an investigation yesterday into whether conservative commentator Armstrong Williams broke the law by not disclosing that he was paid by the Bush administration to promote the president's education agenda.

The investigation relates to provisions that require disclosure of such arrangements, FCC chairman Michael Powell said in a brief statement.

Also yesterday, two Democratic senators asked the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, to review whether other federal agencies have paid commentators to support the administration's agenda.

Senators Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether the Education Department's payment to Williams violated a ban on propaganda -- and if so, to determine who should be held accountable.

''There are real questions whether this is a real expenditure," Dorgan said. ''This has all the makings of political payola."

The FCC and GAO investigations are the latest in a growing controversy over Williams' deal with the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

Williams was paid $240,000 as part of at least a $1.3 million commitment the department had with a public relations firm, Ketchum. Williams produced ads with Education Secretary Rod Paige to promote the law.

He was also hired to provide media time to Paige and to persuade other blacks in media to talk about the sweeping education reforms, records indicate.

On Thursday, Paige announced his department had opened an internal review. Democratic and Republican members of a Senate panel that oversees education funding demanded department records related to the case.

President Bush, in an interview published yesterday in USA Today, said, ''The Cabinet needs to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again."

Williams -- a nationally syndicated radio, television, and print media personality -- and Paige say their arrangement was legal. Williams has acknowledged it was an ''obvious conflict of interest" to accept money and then support the education law in his weekly newspaper column.

In an op-ed posted on the website for the industry magazine PRWeek, Ketchum chief executive office Ray Kotcher said the firm agreed that Williams was wrong for not having disclosed the information.

''We agree, particularly because with government contracts, the public has a right to know about the relationship that spokespeople may have to the issues or government agency they represent," Kotcher wrote.

He also said Ketchum, with help from an outside firm, has started a review of all its federal contracts in an effort that would ''surely yield recommendations to improve transparency."

Powell made the announcement as FCC officials said thousands of complaints had come into the agency regarding Williams.

Free Press, a media reform advocacy group, had said it was forwarding more than 12,000 complaints to the FCC.

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