The Public-Relations Firm Straight Out of a John Grisham Novel

Russian President Vladimir Putin's op-ed in The New York Times yesterday came courtesy of U.S. PR firm Ketchum--the same company the Bush administration used in what the Government Accountability Office later called "covert propaganda." The Obama administration has used it, too.
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U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia in June, 2001. (Reuters)

With his op-ed in The New York Times Thursday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin has done what no American can--unite Congress. Granted, it's united by an intense, "vomit"-inducing revolution at the spectacle of being lectured to by a hostile strongman in the nation's paper of record, but at least Putin can claim an unlikely bedfellow in President George W. Bush.

Ketchum, the PR firm Putin used to place his op-ed in The Times, was the same company that the Bush administration used to produce what the Government Accountability Office later called illegal "covert propaganda."

Under contract from the Department of Education, Ketchum paid conservative pundit Armstrong Williams $241,000 in taxpayer money to tout No Child Left Behind in appearances on CNN and CNBC, and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio ads.

Later, The Washington Post revealed that conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher took at least $20,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services via Ketchum. There were also several thousand dollars in payments to Michael McManus, who wrote a syndicated "Ethics & Religion" column.

But it was the fake news broadcasts that Ketchum produced on behalf of HHS that really ran afoul of the law, according to two opinions released by lawyers at the GAO. The health department's "video news releases," which ran on local TV news stations, violated a prohibition on government propaganda as well as legal appropriations limits. "HHS's misuse of appropriated funds in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition also constitutes a violation of the Antideficiency Act," GAO general counsel Anthony Gamboawrote in 2004.

Since then, Ketchum has been busy working for the Russian government, securing op-eds in CNBC and TheHuffington Post, along with The Times, and making contact with editors on the government's behalf. That is, when it's not offending food bloggers.

But Bush and Putin are not alone. In 2010, Barack Obama's HHS used stimulus funds to hire Ketchum to promote the department's policy on electronic medical records. Obama is also the single largest recipient of donations from Ketchum employees.

Perhaps Obama and Putin can sort out Syria over a drink at Camp Ketchum.

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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