WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration engaged in ''covert propaganda" in hiring conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams to promote a controversial education program, congressional investigators said yesterday.
The Education Department also produced packaged news programs and stories that were distributed to media outlets and aired without properly identifying the source of the material, the Government Accountability Office determined.
In both cases, the Education Department paid private contractors to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to direct federal funds to underperforming schools, according to the findings.
''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," according to a letter from the GAO to the Department of Education. ''This violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition."
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who requested the GAO investigation, demanded that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings seek a refund of taxpayer funds used in producing the fake news releases.
The department signed a $240,000 contract with Williams to talk about the act on his television news program. The department paid Ketchum Inc., a public relations company, $135,272 to create a video that appeared to be a television news segment extolling the virtues of the act.
Under the Ketchum contract, the department also rated media coverage to determine whether it contained the message that the Bush administration and the GOP was ''committed to education." The contract also paid a news syndicate called North American Precis Syndicate to produce an article about the lack of science education in classrooms.
Education officials, who have acknowledged erring in producing the news releases, said the department no longer engaged in such activities. The contracts were signed under the previous education secretary, Rodney Paige.
''We've said for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong, and ill-advised. There's nothing in today's action that changes our opinion," said Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman.
''Under Secretary Spellings's leadership, stringent processes have been instituted to ensure these types of missteps don't happen again," she said.