By ANNE E. KORNBLUT
ASHINGTON, Jan. 13 - Education Secretary Rod Paige broke his silence yesterday about a controversial deal between his agency and Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, ordering an expedited review to address "perceptions and allegations of ethical lapses."
Mr. Paige said he found it "deeply disturbing" that the reputation of the department had been marred by a contract, revealed publicly last week, under which Mr. Williams was paid $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act on his syndicated television program. Mr. Paige insistedthat the payments were legal, geared "exclusively toward the production and airtime of advertisements in which I described the law and encouraged viewers and listeners" to seek more details.
But the contract itself, made public by the Department of Education, states that the arrangement also guaranteed Mr. Paige and other officials the option of appearing on Mr. Williams's program as guests and pushed the commentator to produce segments about the legislation.
Several Democrats have already demanded that the Bush administration investigate the contract and similar programs promoting administration policy in recent months. On Thursday, Senators Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, sent a letter to the Department of Education requesting a "careful review" of the agreement between the public relations firm hired as an intermediary, Ketchum, and Mr. Williams.
"Given our jurisdiction over the funds involved, we would appreciate your careful review of the contract with Ketchum and the payment made to Mr. Williams," the letter to Mr. Paige said. Mr. Specter and Mr. Harkin are the most senior members of the Senate subcommittee that oversees education financing.
At the same time, Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission, urged the agency to investigate whether any laws had been broken, Reuters reported. Mr. Adelstein said that federal law requires broadcasters to inform the public when they have been paid for on-air promotions.