WASHINGTON: A long-awaited report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has ruled that the Department of Education's (DoE) contract with Ketchum and Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law resulted in covert propaganda.
Now, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who requested the investigation, are seeking recovery of the misspent funds.
As part of the contract, Ketchum subcontracted with Williams, a commentator, paying him $188,000 to produce advertisements touting the law, as well as to speak and write favorably about NCLB.
"We urge to move promptly to implement the GAO directives and return these taxpayer dollars to the Treasury," stated a letter from the senators to DoE Secretary Margaret Spellings.
The GAO's decision sharply contrasts with last month's report by the DoE's inspector general, which determined that other media placements to promote NCLB, while lacking disclaimers, did not qualify as covert propaganda.
"[T]he 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," stated a letter from the GAO to Kennedy and Lautenberg. "This ... amounted to covert propaganda."
The GAO also determined that the DoE's use of appropriated funds violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, and that it must report those violations to the President and Congress.
Susan Aspey, DoE press secretary, noted in a statement that the work had been "stupid, wrong, and ill-advised.
"There is nothing in the GAO's action that changes our opinion," she continued. "Under Secretary Spellings' leadership, stringent processes have been instituted to ensure these types of missteps don't happen again."
As far as recovering funds, Aspey said, the DoE is reviewing the GAO recommendation "to determine next steps."
In a statement, Ketchum said that it respected the GAO's decision.
"As we have said before, it was never Ketchum's intention to mislead anyone," it read. "Our policies are clear on disclosure and transparency, and yet we always strive to improve."
In addition to the contract with Williams, Ketchum's media analysis of articles to determine if positive messages about NCLB were being relayed was criticized. VNRs produced as part of the contract were also labeled as propaganda.