ASHINGTON, Jan. 28 - The Bush
administration acknowledged on Friday that it had paid a third
conservative commentator, and at least two departments said they
were conducting internal inquiries to see if other journalists were
under government contract. The investigative arm of Congress also
formally began an inquiry of its own.
The Department of Health and Human Services confirmed having
hired Michael McManus, who writes a weekly syndicated column and is
director of a nonprofit group called Marriage Savers. Mr. McManus
was paid $10,000 to help train counselors about marriage, an
arrangement first reported in USA Today, but officials said he was
paid for his expertise rather than to write columns supporting
At the same time, the Government Accountability Office told the
Education Department it was investigating a $240,000 contract with
the commentator Armstrong Williams that came to light earlier this
month, requesting that education officials turn over any paper or
video materials related to the case. Another conservative writer,
Maggie Gallagher, admitted earlier this week having a $21,500 deal
with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Besieged with questions about contracts with outside public
relations firms and columnists, officials at the Departments of
Education and Health and Human Services said they were conducting
their own inquiries and, two days after a demand from President
Bush, they promised to stop hiring commentators.
In an e-mail message to his staff, Wade Horn, the assistant
secretary for children and families, explicitly banned hiring
columnists for the Health and Human Services Department, saying it
was "important to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of
In an interview, Mr. Horn said the line between journalism,
commentary and consulting had blurred.
"Thirty years ago, if you were a columnist, you were employed
full time by a newspaper most likely, and it was very clear," he
said. "With the explosion of media outfits today, there are a lot of
people who wear a lot of hats. Where's the line? What if you have
your own blog? Are you a journalist?"
A similar message came from officials at the Education
"I am diligently working to get to the bottom of it all,"
Margaret Spellings, the new education secretary, wrote to two
members of the Senate Appropriations Committee who had demanded a
full accounting of the contract with Mr. Armstrong.
Ms. Spellings also released a list of contracts the department
had with outside public relations firms and media outlets, including
Hager Sharp, a public affairs firm, ABC Radio Networks, Bauhaus
Media Group, Radio One Inc. and the Corporate Sports Marketing
Group. One firm, North American Precis, was given a "contract to
develop short syndicated newspaper articles for national
distribution informing the public about the National Center for
Education Statistics Web site." The list did not show amounts
The contract list showed two separate agreements with Ketchum
Inc., which had arranged the contract with Mr. Williams. Although
Department of Education officials said they had suspended Ketchum's
work on the more than $1 million contract that included hiring Mr.
Williams, they said they had not fired the public relations firm
altogether, but were instead reviewing all existing agreements.
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who has
demanded several investigations into the so-called "payola"
practices, welcomed the Government Accountability Office
"The issue here isn't just whether a journalist violated ethics,"
Mr. Lautenberg said, "but whether the Bush administration broke the
law. If the G.A.O. finds that the payment to Armstrong Williams was
an illegal use of taxpayer dollars, then the money should be
returned and Education Department officials should be held