In a searing report that concludes the first in a series of investigations into complaints of political favoritism in the reading initiative, known as Reading First, the report said officials improperly selected the members of review panels that awarded large grants to states, often failing to detect conflicts of interest. The money was used to buy reading textbooks and curriculum for public schools nationwide.
States have received more than $4.8 billion in Reading First grants during the Bush administration, and a recent survey by an independent group, the Center on Education Policy, reported that many state officials consider the initiative to be highly effective in raising reading achievement. But the report describes a tangled process in which some states had to apply for grants as many as six times before receiving approval, with department officials scheming to stack panels with experts tied to favored publishers.
In one e-mail message cited in the report, from which the inspector general deleted some vulgarities, the director of Reading First, Chris Doherty, urged staff members to make clear to one company that it was not favored at the department.
“They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive deleted] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags,” Mr. Doherty wrote.
Mr. Doherty recently resigned from the department to “return to the private sector,” Katherine McLane, a department spokeswoman said.
Officials relayed reporters’ requests for comment to Mr. Doherty, and he declined to be interviewed, an official said.
The abuses described in the report occurred during 2002 and 2003, when Rod Paige was education secretary. John Grimaldi, spokesman for the Chartwell Education Group where Mr. Paige is chairman, said he had not read the report but would seek Mr. Paige’s reaction to it.
“Some of the actions taken by department officials and described in the inspector general’s report reflect individual mistakes,” Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement. “Although these events occurred before I became secretary of education, I am concerned about these actions and committed to addressing and resolving them.”
Officials will review by the end of the year all Reading First applications that the department approved, to determine that they met all applicable requirements, Ms. McLane said.
The report recounts how during the formation of a review panel in 2002 a journalist asked the department whether federal officials were trying to stack the panel so that some reading programs would not be treated fairly.
The report cited the Reading First director’s response to the department employee who relayed the journalist’s question: “Stack the panel? ... I have never heard of such a thing ....<harumph, harumph>” the director replied.
“The response,” the report concluded, “suggests that he may indeed have intended to ‘stack’ the expert review panel.”
The report mentions Reid Lyon, the former chief of a branch of the National Institutes of Health, who was a research adviser to President Bush and an architect of Reading First. He exerted immense influence at the department when Mr. Paige was there.
In 2002, Dr. Lyon told the Reading First director and other department officials that a woman whom the department had already selected to be on a review panel had been “actively working to undermine” a reading initiative he favored, the report said.
“Chances are that other reviewers can trump any bias on her part,” Dr. Lyon told the officials.
“We can’t uninvite her,” a senior adviser to Mr. Paige wrote in response, the report said. “Just make sure she is on a panel with one of our barracuda types.”
The incident demonstrated “the intention of the former senior adviser to the secretary to control another panelist,” the report said.
In an interview yesterday, Dr. Lyon said that in the 2002 incident he sought to neutralize bias.
“If we detected bias, we had to make sure that the review panel was put together so that that bias would be neutralized,” he said.
Dr. Lyon left the national institutes in August 2005 and is now an executive vice president for Higher Ed Holdings, a company based in Dallas that is working to found a college of education.
“Oh man, I’m mortified,” Dr. Lyon said of the report. “To see the facts that were presented today was very disappointing, because it’s an outstanding program.”
The investigation was opened last year after the inspector general received accusations of mismanagement and other abuses at the department from publishers of several reading programs, including Robert E. Slavin, a director of a research center at the Johns Hopkins University who is chairman of Success for All, a nonprofit foundation that produces reading materials.
“The department has said at least 10,000 times that they had no favored reading programs, and this report provides clear evidence that they were very aggressively pressing districts to use certain programs and not use others,” Dr. Slavin said.