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 administration policies.
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 interest."
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 Department.
"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
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 inquiry.
"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 accountable."