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Review blasts Bush reading program

Says Education Dept. ignored law, ethics

WASHINGTON -- A scorching internal review of the Bush administration's billion-dollar-a-year reading program says the Education Department ignored the law and ethical standards to steer money how it wanted.

The government audit is unsparing in its view that the Reading First program has been beset by conflicts of interest and willful mismanagement. It suggests the department broke the law by trying to dictate which curriculum schools must use.

It also depicts a program in which review panels were stacked with people who shared the director's views, and in which only favored publishers of reading curriculums could get money.

In one e-mail, the director told a staff member to come down hard on a company he did not support, according to the report released yesterday by the department's inspector general.

``They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags," the program director wrote, the report says.

That official, Chris Doherty, is resigning in the coming days, department spokeswoman Katherine McLane said yesterday. Asked if he was quitting in response to the report, she said only that Doherty is returning to the private sector after five years at the agency. Doherty declined comment.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pledged to swiftly adopt all the audit's recommendations. She also pledged a review of every Reading First grant her agency has approved.

``When something undermines the credibility of this department, or the standing of any program, I'm going to spring into action," Spellings said.

Reading First aims to help young children read through scientifically proven programs, and the department considers it a jewel of No Child Left Behind, Bush's education law. Just this week, a separate review found the effort is helping schools raise achievement.

But from the start, the program has been dogged by accusations of impropriety, leading to several ongoing audits. The new report from the Office of Inspector General -- an independent arm of the Education Department -- calls into question the program's credibility.

The ranking Democrat on the House education committee was furious.

``They should fire everyone who was involved in this," said Representative George Miller, a California Democrat. ``This was not an accident, this was not an oversight. This was an intentional effort to corrupt the process."

Spellings said the problems happened in the early days of the program, which began in 2002, before she was secretary. She said those responsible have left the agency or been reassigned.

About 1,500 school districts have received $4.8 billion in Reading First grants.

The report does not name Doherty, referring to him as the Reading First director.

It says he repeatedly used his influence to steer money toward states that used a reading approach he favored, called direct instruction, or DI.

In one case, the report says, he was told a review panel was stacked with people who backed that program.

``That's the funniest part -- yes!" he responded in e-mail dating to 2002. ``You know the line from Casablanca, `I am SHOCKED that there is gambling going on in this establishment!' Well, `I am SHOCKED that there are pro-DI people on this panel!' "

Spellings took issue with the use of such e-mails in the audit. She said they could be used to draw unfair conclusions about a person's intentions.

The inspector general rejected that. It said the e-mails were written by Doherty in his role as director, and there is no evidence they were inaccurate or out of context.

``I'm doing everything I can at this point," Spellings said. ``I can't undo what's been done."

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