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Group FOIA's Feds Over Propaganda

Following revelations that the Bush administration paid a conservative commentator and columnist to tout the president’s “No Child Left Behind” program, a citizens’ watchdog group has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 22 federal agencies seeking contracts with public-relations firms that might have set up similar arrangements.

In light of conservative journalist and pundit Armstrong Williams' concession that he received $240,000 from the Department of Education through a contract with Ketchum Public Relations, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Tuesday filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to 22 government agencies, including all cabinet agencies.

“How extensively has the administration used propaganda to shore up its controversial policies?” asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington a non-profit group dedicated to holding public officials to high standards of behavior. ”Did it pay any commentators to speak out in support of the Patriot Act? Is it paying anyone now to convince the public that Social Security is in crisis? By filing these FOIAs, we hope to answer these questions."

Last week, Williams, who says he supports the No Child Left Behind program anyway, admitted to supporting the program in his radio broadcasts, television appearances and columns, and to receiving a six-figure payment from the Education Department to do so. The agreement is in violation of the Publicity and Propaganda clause routinely included in annual appropriations bills.

CREW seeks copies of all contracts with public relation firms, including Ketchum and Fleishman-Hillard.

Both firms have been mired in similar controversies in recent years. The Williams case is the fourth that has become public. Previously, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for having Ketchum create bogus news reports in support of the new Medicare Bill. GAO is also investigating another contract between Ketchum and DOE. On Jan. 4 GAO ruled that video releases generated by Fleischman-Hillard for the Office of National Drug Control Policy were illegal.

"This type of covert propaganda has no place in a healthy democracy," CREW said. "It is particularly outrageous that the government continues to engage in this sort of illegal activity despite the fact that the GAO has said that it is illegal."