WASHINGTON — The Education Department engaged in illegal "covert propaganda" when it paid columnist Armstrong Williams to promote Bush administration policies and when it produced a video that seemed to be a news story, congressional investigators concluded Friday.

The Government Accountability Office said the public relations efforts violated the government's "publicity or propaganda prohibition" because the department did not clearly disclose its role to the public. The department was ordered to report the violations to Congress and the president.

The investigation was requested by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., after it was revealed late last year that the department had hired Williams, a syndicated conservative columnist and TV personality, to promote Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law.

In light of the GAO findings, the senators immediately sent a letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings urging her to abide by the law, recover the misspent dollars and meet with them on Capitol Hill.

"The Bush administration took taxpayer funds that should have gone towards helping kids learn, and diverted it to a political propaganda campaign," Lautenberg said in a statement. "The administration needs to return these funds to the treasury."

The PR effort unfolded before Spellings took the helm of the department early this year. Her spokeswoman, Susan Aspey, said, "Under Secretary Spellings' leadership, stringent processes have been instituted to ensure these types of missteps don't happen again."

"We've said for the past six months that this was stupid, wrong and ill-advised," Aspey said. "There's nothing in today's action that changes our opinion."

At issue was a $240,000 contract to have Williams, who is black, inform minorities about Bush's law by producing ads with then-Education Secretary Rod Paige. Williams also was to provide media time to Paige and to persuade other blacks in the media to talk about the law.

Nancie McPhail, Williams' chief of staff, said Friday he would have no comment until he had a chance to review the GAO findings. Williams previously has apologized and said that he "exercised poor judgment."

The GAO also looked at a broader Education Department contract with Ketchum, a public relations firm, to publicize the Bush education agenda. This effort included production of a "video news release" promoting the education law that looked and sounded like a news story.

At least one television station in New York used the package in 2003, substituting its own reporter for the voiceover but following the script and video the department provided.

"Because the department's role in the production and distribution of the prepackaged news story is not revealed to the target audience, the prepackaged news story constitutes covert propaganda," the investigators wrote.

As part of its contract, Ketchum also rated various news stories and individual reporters on how favorable their education reporting was to Bush and the Republican Party. The GAO said this effort was part of a broader media analysis that was otherwise acceptable and required little added expense.

"Nevertheless, we caution that, if the department chooses to conduct media analyses in the future, it be more diligent in its efforts to ensure that such analyses be free from such explicit partisan content," the investigators wrote.

The GAO also notified the department that it should look into whether there was another violation of the propaganda ban when Ketchum arranged for the North American Precis Syndicate to write a newspaper article entitled "Parents want science classes that make the grade." The article appeared in numerous small papers around the country and did not disclose the department's role, the investigators said.

The video and reporter rankings came to light through a Freedom of Information Act request by People for the American Way, a liberal group that contended the department was using tax dollars to promote a political agenda.

Elliot Mincberg, the group's counsel, said the GAO findings "confirm the concern about the impropriety of what the Department of Education did." He said he hoped the findings would help deter any further violations from occurring throughout the government.

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Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, said the GAO ruling could be seen as a victory for both the press and the government if it helps to reinforce a standard that "whatever information is presented to the public is done in the most transparent way possible."

Both sides benefit when the public is clear on where information is coming from, he said.

In a related matter, the GAO also looked into a Health and Human Services Department contract with syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher to help promote a marriage initiative. The GAO said the Gallagher contract did not violate the propaganda ban "because the services provided were not covert, self-aggrandizing or purely partisan."

Gallagher said in an interview that her main work for the past decade has been research and education on ways to strengthen marriage. "I'd like to take this opportunity to again apologize to my readers for an oversight in not disclosing that I had done a small amount of work for the government in my specialty."

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