A question of disclosure

Posted: Jan 26, 2005 12:00 AM

I just got off the phone with Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. He called me with a very good question: "You had a contract with HHS to do some work on marriage issues in 2002. Should you have disclosed that?"
Hmm, good question, Howard.

First the facts. In 2001, the Department of Health and Human Services approached me to do some work on marriage issues for the government, including a presentation of the social science evidence on the benefits of marriage for HHS regional managers, to draft an essay for Wade Horn, assistant secretary of HHS, on how government can strengthen marriage, and to prepare drafts of community brochures: "The Top Ten Reasons Marriage Matters," stuff like that.

The contract reads: "ACF (Administration for Children and Families, part of HHS) is pursuing research to create knowledge about the dynamics of marriage among low-income populations, and potential strategies states might pursue to strengthen marriage. ACF needs additional expertise to accomplish this work.

"Statement of work: The contractor shall consult with and assist ACF in ongoing work related to strengthening marriage, and provide assistance advice on development of new research activities in this area. The contractor shall perform a variety of activities including (but not limited to) providing information on the programs to strengthen marriage, advising on the dissemination of materials, and participating in meetings and workshops."

The contract did not authorize a general consulting fee. Instead it authorized payment for actual work performed, to be submitted and approved via separate invoice.

By my records, I was paid $21,500 from HHS in 2002.

Is it acceptable for someone who writes a newspaper column to do research and writing for the government?

Of course, the reason Howard Kurtz of the Post is interested is the now-notorious case of conservative columnist Armstrong Williams, who signed a very different sort of government contract: to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind Act on his television show.

Armstrong defended himself in two ways, first by saying, "I'm a pundit, not a journalist." And second by saying that he supported the Bush act anyway, so why shouldn't he take money?

It cost him his newspaper column. Very properly, I might add. I have no interest in taking either of these lines of defense. So what's my answer to Howard?

My first instinct is to say, no, Howard, I had no special obligation to disclose this information. I'm a marriage expert. I get paid to write, edit, research and educate on marriage. If a scholar or expert gets paid to do some work for the government, should he or she disclose that if he writes a paper, essay or op-ed on the same or similar subject? If this is the ethical standard, it is an entirely new standard.

I was not paid to promote marriage. I was paid to produce particular research and writing products (articles, brochures, presentations), which I produced. My lifelong experience in marriage research, public education and advocacy is the reason HHS hired me.

But the real truth is that it never occurred to me. On reflection, I think Howard is right. I should have disclosed a government contract when I later wrote about the Bush marriage initiative. I would have, if I had remembered it. My apologies to my readers.