The Bush administration was confronted with fresh evidence of a far-reaching clandestine campaign to influence public opinion yesterday after a third conservative commentator admitted receiving payments for championing its policies.
Michael McManus, a newspaper columnist, was paid up to $10,000 (£5,300) to praise the administration's marriage initiative, which diverts funds from welfare to marital counseling, the Los Angeles Times reported.
His fees were approved by a branch of the department of health and human services, and were funneled through the Lewin Group, a consultancy firm. The commentator's rightwing Marriage Savers Foundation received an additional $49,000 in government grants. Mr McManus did not disclose the payments in his columns.
Neither did Maggie Gallagher, another conservative columnist and even a more prominent supporter of the marriage plan.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Ms Gallagher received $21,500 from the department of health and human services, and $20,000 from the justice department for championing the initiative in her syndicated newspaper columns.
George Bush tried to distance the administration from such payment practices earlier this week, and an official from the health department said the payments would cease.
But a report issued on Thursday by Democratic members of the House of Representatives suggested the Bush administration may rely far more heavily on pay-per-view columnists than had been previously thought.
The administration spent more than $88m on public relations contracts last year - more than double the $37m it spent during Mr Bush's first year in office. That brought the administration's first-term spending on PR to $250m.
The first sign of a political payola scandal erupted this month when USA Today reported that Armstrong Williams, a conservative African-American columnist, had been paid $240,000 by the education department to champion the administration's controversial policies in his print, radio and television outlets.
Mr Williams was paid through Ketchum PR, the public relations firm also involved in producing fake "news pieces" last year that touted the administration's prescription drug bill. Some US television stations put the clips straight on the air.
The administration claimed that its use of a fake reporter, Karen Ryan, to sell its programs, was an isolated incident. It now appears that such covert campaigns were widespread.
The Bush administration's readiness to pay for favorable press at a time of mounting budget deficits has raised eyebrows in Congress.
"While not all public relations spending is illegal or inappropriate, this rapid rise in public relations contracts at a time of growing budget deficits raises questions about the priorities of the administration," a report on public relations spending by the Democratic staff of the house government reform committee said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005