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WHITE HOUSE PR SPENDING CONTROVERSY HEATS UP

Congressmen Seek Legislation Barring 'Covert Propaganda'

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Democrats today continued their attack on the White House's spending on public relations efforts on behalf on President Bush's agenda, while the president disavowed the Education Department's $240,000 payment to a conservative commentator.
At the White House, President Bush denied any knowledge of the $240,000 paid to a commentator to promote an administration program.

Speaking today at a news conference, President Bush said the White House had no advance knowledge of the Education Department's payment to pundit Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. After first saying Mr. Williams shouldn't have accepted the payment, Mr. Bush said the payment itself was wrong.

Won't make payments
"All our cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying, you know, commentators to advance our agenda. Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet," Mr. Bush said.

Democrats in the House today attacked what they said was a dramatic increase in PR spending by the Bush administration.

Increase in PR spending
According to a report released by House Democratic leaders and Democrats on the House Committee on Government Reform, the Bush administration is spending $88 million on public relations contracts, an amount that has grown 128%, or by $50 million, since 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration.

The report said the agencies with the biggest share of the contracts over the last four years are Ketchum Communications (which handled the Education Department contract) at $97 million; Matthews Media Group, $52 million; and Fleishmann Hillard (which handles the PR portion of the White House youth anti-drug account) at $41 million.

The report, issued by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; the committee's ranking Democrat, Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., among others also questions whether proper contracting procedures were followed. The report said that in 2004, 40% of the PR contracts worth $37 million were awarded without competitive bidding.

'Covert propaganda'
Democrats began complaining about the administration's PR activities more than a year ago after the White House began advertising a new Medicare drug benefit during an election year and more than two years before the benefit was to take effect. Adding to their attacks is a Government Accounting Office investigation that referred to spending for that program and other government activities as "covert propaganda."

Ms. DeLauro today introduced the Federal Propaganda Prohibition Act to codify regulations that government-funded activities should not be used for propaganda.

She said the legislation would bar covert propaganda, or ad messages that do not identify the government as the source and is intended for "self-aggrandizement" or "puffery" and serve a solely partisan purpose. The law would make officials subject to administrative and criminal penalties for willful violations.

'Lenient enforcement'
"There have been far too many instances of the Bush administration taking advantage of lenient enforcement and the lack of oversight of covert propaganda," Ms. DeLauro said. "With reports surfacing that Social Security will soon be the next domestic program to fall victim to government-funded advertising, it is especially critical that Congress enforce this prohibition and increase oversight of these advertising and public relations contracts."

The White House did not return a call seeking comment.

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