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President Calls For End to Tax-Funded PR for His Policies

Times Staff Writer

As fresh evidence surfaced Wednesday of the Bush administration’s use of taxpayer dollars to promote its policies in the news media, the president disavowed such practices and ordered that his Cabinet secretaries remain independent from the press.

Bush spoke as Democrats produced statistics showing that contracts to private public relations firms by the administration have more than doubled since he took office.

Separately, it was disclosed that a syndicated columnist had received $21,500 from the Department of Health and Human Services to assist the department’s efforts to promote marriage among aid recipients.

Earlier this month, published reports disclosed that the Education Department, under former Secretary Rod Paige, had paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the president’s education policies.

During a White House news conference, Bush denied that he and his staff knew about such contracts, which Democrats denounced as “covert propaganda” directed at the American people and paid for by their tax dollars.

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“I expect my Cabinet secretaries to make sure that that practice doesn’t go forward,” Bush told reporters. “We didn’t know about this in the White House, and there needs to be a nice, independent relationship between the White House and the press, the administration and the press.”

According to a report by Democrats on the House Committee on Government Reform, the administration spent at least $88 million on public relations contracts in 2004, more than twice the $37 million the Clinton administration spent in 2000, its last year in office.

The report also said that 41% of such contracts last year were awarded on a no-bid basis, while in 2000 under Clinton only 16% were noncompetitive. The report said the numbers were preliminary and likely to increase because some government agencies had yet to disclose their 2004 public relations expenditures.

The report tallies up all government contracts with 40 large public relations firms, and notes that the totals include legitimate contracts to help educate the public about health risks and other “legal and appropriate” topics.

“Each day seems to bring another example to light where this administration is funding covert propaganda by hiring public relations firms to produce and disseminate fabricated video news reports or to pay off journalist/commentators to advance the Bush line,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), ranking Democrat on the committee. “This sort of thing is illegal and unethical. We need to get more of an explanation from the administration as to whether the revelations this month are just the tip of the iceberg.”

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that marriage scholar and syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher accepted the $21,500 contract from the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the administration’s “marriage initiative.”

In a statement, Gallagher denied that her work was part of the administration’s marriage initiative, but said she accepted the money in 2001 in her role as a scholar to help draft brochures describing the benefits of marriage for unwed parents and other aid recipients.

“Until today, researchers and scholars have not generally been expected to disclose a government-funded research project in the past, when they later wrote about their field of expertise in the popular press or in scholarly journals,” Gallagher said. However, she said, as a journalist, “it was a mistake on my part not to have disclosed any government contract. It will not happen again.”

The government under Democratic and Republican administrations has long contracted with public relations firms to help inform the public and package and promote its programs. However, it is illegal to use taxpayer dollars to fund propaganda without explicit congressional approval and without disclosing the government’s role. Democrats complain that under the Bush administration, the size of such contracts has grown excessively and the nature of their work has become more deceptive.

“While not all public relations spending is illegal or inappropriate, this rapid rise in public relations contracts at a time of growing budget deficits raises questions about the priorities of the administration,” the Democrats’ report said.

Last year, the GAO criticized video footage produced under contract with Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy that were designed to be inserted into television newscasts. Similar videos produced by the Education Department are under investigation.

During his news conference, Bush described the Education Department’s public relations practices as a mistake.

“All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet,” the president said.

Then he said to the reporter who asked the question: “I’m confident you’ll be, over the course of the next four years, willing to give our different policies an objective look -- won’t you? Yes, I can see that.”


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