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Inside Politics

Congressional watchdog probing pundit payment

From Scott Spoerry

Syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher
Government Accountability Office

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Government Accountability Office plans to investigate payments from the Bush administration to syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, a GAO spokeswoman confirmed Monday.

The congressional investigative agency will try to determine whether the Department of Heath and Human Services broke any laws when it paid Gallagher to help promote a marriage initiative, the spokeswoman said.

The GAO is already investigating a $240,000 contract with syndicated columnist/radio host Armstrong Williams from the Department of Education. Williams was being paid to promote the No Child Left Behind law.

Gallagher and Williams have apologized for not disclosing the payments to their readers.

Gallagher told CNN in January that she was hired because she is an expert on marriage issues and was asked to write brochures, do research and speak to some HHS officials. She said she was not paid to advocate the administration's positions in her columns. (Full story)

The GAO is expanding its investigation into the Gallagher contract at the request of Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who sent a letter to the agency last week asking for a wider look at whether the Bush administration improperly used taxpayer funds "for publicity or propaganda purposes."

At a January news conference, President Bush told reporters that he did not approve of paying commentators and said the practice would stop.

"There needs to be independence," Bush said

"All our Cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying ... commentators to advance our agenda," he said. "Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet."

Democrats in the House and the Senate have proposed legislation that would prohibit paying commentators. (Full story)

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