Dept. of Education Releases Report on Payola Controversy

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By: E&P Staff

The federal Department of Education paid education-advocacy groups that produced Op-Ed columns, ads, and other material, according to a new report issued by the DOE’s Inspector General.

This means that former Tribune Media Services (TMS) columnist Armstrong Williams wasn’t the only person writing for newspapers while receiving DOE money.

The report said The Dallas Morning News, The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, the Mobile (Ala.) Register, and The Grand Island (Neb.) Independent were among the papers that published Op-Eds by authors who failed to disclose they were receiving DOE money. Separately, the office of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) determined that additional opinion articles ran in papers such as The New York Sun.

Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, requested the Inspector General report on Jan. 7 — the day it was revealed that columnist/broadcaster Armstrong Williams received $240,000 from the DOE to help promote the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. TMS terminated Williams’ contract that evening.

The report notes that Kate Walsh, president of the “National Council on Teacher Quality,” wrote a Nov. 21, 2004, piece for the Mobile Register; a Dec. 2, 2004, piece for The Grand Island Independent; and a Feb. 6, 2005, piece for The Sacramento Bee. (The last one was after the Williams revelations.) The first column supported NCLB, and the next two discussed teacher qualifications and merit pay.

Also, Marcela Garcini, director of parent outreach for the “Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options” (CREO), wrote columns for The Dallas Morning News in August and October 2004. The report said “CREO’s September 2004 progress report to [the DOE] states that Garcini ‘had the opportunity to become a regular guest writer for The Dallas Morning News.'”

Garcini and Walsh did not disclose in their columns that their organizations had received DOE money, according to the report. But the Inspector General said the paid-for material did not constitute covert propaganda because the DOE would have had to willingly mislead the public.

Miller disagrees with that assessment. “The department is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes covert propaganda,” Miller said in a statement. “But on multiple occasions, education groups used taxpayer money — unbeknownst to taxpayers — to promote controversial federal policies. The department allowed this egregious use of taxpayer dollars to continue with such consistency that it cannot now claim that it was ignorant of the practice. Either the department is grossly incompetent when it comes to awarding grants and contracts, or it is misleading investigators and engaging in a cover up.”

The Inspector General did conclude that it was improper for organizations to use DOE grant money to produce and disseminate public materials without including a disclaimer about funding, and said the appropriate course of action is to recover grant monies paid to these groups.

A copy of the DOE report can be found here.

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