White House Is Impeding Armstrong Williams Probe, Dem. Lawmaker Says

By: (AP) The Bush administration is impeding an investigation into the Education Department's hiring of commentator Armstrong Williams by refusing to allow key White House officials to be interviewed, a Democratic lawmaker briefed on the review said Thursday.

In addition, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is considering invoking a privilege that he said would require information to be deleted when the final version is publicly released, which is expected within days.

Miller called for Jack Higgins, the inspector general at the Education Department, to delay the report until Spellings agrees not to invoke "deliberative process privilege" and the White House grants interviews with current or former officials familiar with the deal.

"The public's right to know is absolutely more important than any claim of privilege that the White House or the Department of Education might make," Miller said. "The public has a right to all the facts about possible misconduct."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that under federal law, an inspector general's jurisdiction is limited to his or her own agency -- in this case, the Education Department.

"The IG is authorized to request information from other federal agencies but not from the White House office," Perino said, adding that courts have upheld such protections.

The Education Department initially declined comment on Miller's charges. But early Thursday evening, press secretary Susan Aspey said Spellings has spent the past few days reviewing the report, and that "the inspector general will be releasing it as originally drafted with the secretary's full and complete support and cooperation."

A spokeswoman for the inspector general's office said the agency does not comment on its ongoing work.

The hiring of Williams, a prominent media personality, has opened the Bush administration to criticism about whether its public relations efforts have crossed ethical or legal lines.

Bush himself has said the department erred in not disclosing that Williams was a paid consultant. While speaking to newspaper editors Thursday, the president said in response to a question about media consultants, "It was wrong, what happened there in the Education Department."

Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, received a briefing on the draft findings of the investigation on Tuesday because he had requested the report. The report also had been requested by then-Education Secretary Rod Paige.

The department has shut down its contract with Ketchum, the public relations firm hired primarily to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind education law. Of the $1.3 million contract, about $240,000 went to Williams, a conservative commentator.

The money went toward the production of ads, the department says, although Williams was also hired to provide air time to Paige and to influence other black commentators to talk about the law, records show.

Williams wrote a newspaper column syndicated by Tribune Media Services, which cancelled his contract after his arrangement with the Education Department was revealed in January.

Before leaving his post in January, Paige said the hiring of Williams' company had been reviewed and was legal, but he apologized for "perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses." Some lawmakers called the deal government-supported propaganda, which is illegal.

After the hiring of Williams was revealed in a news account, Bush ordered his Cabinet secretaries not to hire columnists to promote administration agendas, saying there "needs to be a nice independent relationship between the White House and the press." He also said that the White House had been unaware that the Education Department hired Williams.

In an interview with The Associated Press in January, Spellings said that she and her chief of staff, David Dunn, did not know about the contract with Williams until after it was signed. Both worked in the White House as domestic policy advisers in Bush's first term.

According to Miller, some of the unnamed White House officials who have been "put off-limits to interviewers" now work at the Education Department. In a letter to White House counsel Harriet Miers, Miller asked that she order full cooperation with the investigation.

"Investigation of the IG involves possible criminal conduct and abuse of federal contracting laws," he wrote. "Accordingly, it is imperative that no one in the administration take action that has the effect of obstructing or undermining this important inquiry."


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