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Is Education Secretary Spellings The Next Alberto Gonzales?

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The only thing saving Education Secretary Margaret Spellings from drifting into Alberto Gonzales territory right now is, well, Alberto Gonzales.

If it weren't for the fact that everyone's attention is focused on him, more folks would notice that Spellings has been up to some very Gonzales-like things over at the Department of Education.

In response to the growing litany of reports and investigations surrounding misdeeds in the multi-billion-dollar student lending industry, Spellings has, somewhat unbelievably, claimed that she lacked the authority to take on the lenders and universities who were manipulating the system for financial gain.

In response to the scandal surrounding an early literacy program called Reading First, which independent reports have found full of conflicts of interest and unwise if not illegal implementation, Spellings argues that she wasn't Secretary then and that everyone involved - former Secretary Rod Paige, former Assistant Secretary Gene Hickock, and others - has left.

True, Spellings wasn't Secretary back then when Reading First was headed off the rails. But it's not like she wasn't there. Before becoming the EdSec, Spellings was head of the Domestic Policy Council, which oversees education from the White House.

And yet, Spellings claims clean hands.

"It would have been impossible for me to have been intimately involved with oversight of all those programs," she said last week in Los Angeles about her responsibilities at the DPC.

It's a response that comes awfully close to Gonzales infuriating claims to have not been involved in the Attorney General firings, and to not remember key events.

The Gonzales-Spellings similarities don't end there.

Like Gonzales, Spellings is continually vexed by a former employee who contradicts her account of events. For Gonzales, it's Kyle Sampson. For Spellings, it's Chris Doherty, the former head of the Reading First program, who was summarily dismissed when things started to heat up.

Doherty claims that the White House was intimately involved in every step of the implementation of the program, which allegedly violated federal statutes by excluding certain reading programs from being used. ("Four Officials Profited From Publishers, Report Finds," The Washington Post)

But none of this has led to the type of bipartisan piling-on that Gonzales has endured, nor the calls for her resignation.

In fact, Republicans generally praised the Secretary when she appeared in front of the House education committee on Thursday - the same day as Gonzales was testifying. And even the gruff Democratic Chairman George Miller (CA) wasn't able to generate as much indignation as expected.

Wearing a somber black top and pearls, EdSec Spellings endured repeated interruptions, refutations, and harrumphs from a worked-up Chairman Miller in during the hearing. He called Spellings' arguments "a crutch," "not plausible," and "unacceptable." But Miller never took things to the next level of disparagement. (You can watch a video of the testimony from yesterday here.)

In fact, some have argued Miller is taking it somewhat easier on Spellings because he needs her to get No Child Left Behind reauthorized.

For her part, Spellings has done her best to address the allegations against her management of these programs, and to divert attention when she can't. She announced the departure of one top student lending official on Tuesday, just before she was scheduled to testify. ("Federal Student Loan Official Is Resigning", The New York Times) She encouraged the House passage of a student lending "sunshine" law the day before she was to appear, which took much of the steam out of the Thursday proceedings. ("House Passes Ban on Gifts From Student Lenders", The New York Times)

Of course, the responsibility doesn't all lie with Spellings, who has taken action to address some, if not all, of the recommended changes. Doherty and others who were involved didn't disclose conflicts of interest, as required by the law. The student loan lobby is large and powerful. The press has for many years gone easy on Spellings, who is eternally charming and pleasant.

But the scandals are what they are, as the kids like to say. And distractions and protestations will only work so long.

Spellings still refuses to fire one of the education officials involved in the Reading First scandal. (EdWeek notes Spellings' uncertainty and refusals to take strong action on the Reading First front here.) She still appears to be protecting the name of another, longtime colleague and former ED staffer Beth Ann Bryan, who insiders say was the point person between the White House and the Department on Reading First issues. And neither she, nor the White House, has yet turned over the emails and correspondence that have been requested by Chairman Miller.

How much longer will the Congressional Republicans defend Spellings, and when will the press get out from under the Spellings spell? I guess we've got to get out from under this Gonzales thing first. But in the meantime, they both seem to be going down the same path.