GAO ruled parts of Education Department contracts illegal

Saturday, October 8, 2005 On September 30, 2005, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative agency of the U.S. Congress, released report B-305368, Department of Education--Contract to Obtain Services of Armstrong Williams. Senators Edward Kennedy and Frank Lautenberg asked the GAO back in October of 2004 to look into "an illegal use of taxpayer funds by the U.S. Department of Education, and request an expedited legal decision from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the matter."[1]

In the 16 page report, the GAO found that the contracts with Ketchum Inc. "violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition for fiscal year 2004 because it amounted to covert propaganda. As a result of this violation, the Department also violated the Antideficiency Act, 31 U.S.C. sect. 1341."[2]

The report goes on to describe the history of the contract between the United States Department of Education, Ketchum, and Armstrong Williams. The report also describes the Department's own defense of its position, "the Department argued that it contracted only for television and radio advertisements featuring Mr. Williams.[35] Talbert Letter at 2. The Department offered three points in support of its position: First, the only portions of its Statements of Work that have any legal significance are the lists of “deliverables.” The Department argues that its task orders did not procure Mr. Williams’s commentary, which meant there was nothing for the Department to disclose. Second, the Department did not pay any appropriated funds for covert propaganda. Third, the Department’s task orders represented the legitimate dissemination of information to the public. Id. We do not agree."[3]

The report conlcudes, "The Department of Education violated the fiscal year 2004 publicity or propaganda prohibition by contracting with Ketchum for the services of GWG to obtain commentary by Armstrong Williams on the NCLB Act without requiring Ketchum to ensure that Mr. Williams disclosed to his audiences the Department’s role. The commentary obtained as a result of these contracts violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition because it was “covert,” in that it did not disclose to the targeted audiences that it was sponsored by the Department and was paid for using appropriated funds. E.g., B-303495, Jan. 4, 2005; B-302710, May 19, 2004. At the same time, because the Department had no appropriation available to contract for commentary in violation of the cited publicity or propaganda prohibitions, the Department also violated the Antideficiency Act, 31 U.S.C. sect. 1341. B-303495, Jan. 4, 2005; B-302710, May 19, 2004. It must report this violation to the Congress and the President, and submit a copy of that report to the Comptroller General. 31 U.S.C. sect. 1351, as amended. B-304335, Mar. 8, 2005."[4]

The GAO acts as an investigative arm of Congress, and reports to Congress and the White House, to enable Congress's effective oversight of the government. All enforcement of GAO findings is left up to Congress itself, as the GAO has no enforcement powers.