Washington Senior Bush administration officials showed poor judgment and wasted money in hiring conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the president's agenda even though they violated no laws or ethics rules, an internal inquiry has concluded.
The report released Friday also revealed that two Education Department officials had warned the White House last summer of concerns about the Williams contract, including the "inherent conflict" of paying a pundit to endorse President Bush's education law.
David Dunn, then-special assistant to the president for domestic policy, agreed with the concerns, yet neither the White House nor the department halted the contract until it was disclosed by the news media in January. Dunn is now chief of staff to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who distanced the White House from any blame for the hiring of Williams.
The episode has proved embarrassing for the Bush administration, which has paid at least two other conservative columnists to promote its agenda and has been criticized for distributing news videos that don't make clear they were produced by the government.
Bush has said the hiring of Williams was wrong and that the White House did not know in advance that a pundit had been hired. Spellings said Friday that description remained true.
The review by the Education Department's inspector general dealt only with contract law -- not whether the administration has violated a ban on covert propaganda. That is the subject of another review by congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office.
Despite its findings of no legal or ethical violations, the investigation yielded an unflattering portrait of the Education Department and how it came to hire Williams. Senior officials showed poor management, information didn't get to the right people and the agency paid for work that was poorly produced or never even reached its intended audience.
"It think this was wrong," said Spellings, who began as secretary in January. "I think it was stupid. I think it was ill-advised. I think it showed a lack of judgment."
Rod Paige, who led the agency when the contract was signed, did not reply to a telephone message Friday seeking comment. He has defended the contract as legal but apologized for perceptions of ethical lapses.
The department paid $240,000 to Williams -- a commentator with newspaper, television and radio audiences -- to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. The deal was part of a $1.3 million contract the department had with Ketchum, a public relations firm.