A Place in the Penalty Box

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Three of the 16 AIDS groups that are the subject of a federal inquiry into their spending at the 14th International Conference on AIDS apparently came to the attention of the 12 conservative Congressmembers who requested the inquiry solely because the groups met with federal officials at the conference.

The inquiry resulted from a July 17 letter from the dozen Republican Congressmembers to Tommy Thompson, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, that alleged that the conference, held in Barcelona in July, had an anti-religious bias.

They were also offended that Thompson''s July 9 speech at the conference had been drowned out by a protest organized by 12 of the 16 AIDS groups. Those groups objected to Bush administration AIDS policies.

The Congressmembers asked what was the “total amount of U.S. federal assistance” given to the conference and how many individuals from government and private groups “attended the conference with some form of federal assistance?”

In a July 17 e-mail to HHS, Roland Foster, a staffer on the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, asked about the “current fed funding levels, if any, received by the following organizations that led the demonstration,” naming the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), AIDS Project Los Angeles, the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, and the Treatment Action Group.

Those four groups and another eight endorsed the protest on a flyer that was distributed during Thompson''s speech.

Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, chairs the subcommittee and he was one of the 12 representatives who wrote Thompson. Souder''s office referred calls to Foster, who did not respond to a call seeking comment.

In a July 23 e-mail, Foster added another dozen groups, including three––the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the National Association of People with AIDS and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago––that had not sponsored the protest, but had met with Thompson in Barcelona.

Foster also included the New York chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, on the list of 12. That group did not endorse the protest or meet with Thompson. ACT UP/New York, however, is a member of the Health Global Access Project which did endorse the protest, but did not attend the meeting.

“I cannot address the rhyme or reason for these 16 groups,” said Ronald Johnson, associate executive director at GMHC. “I think it goes to the mindless retaliation of the signatories to the letter.”

GMHC receives roughly $2 million a year in federal funds.

The AIDS groups defend their right to protest administration policies even as most of them declined to criticize Thompson, HHS, or the Bush administration for launching the inquiry, reserving their complaints for the congressmembers and staff.

“The inquiry is really a request to understand better what these organizations are doing,” said David E. Munar, associate director at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. “We know we provide excellent stewardship of these dollars that we are privileged to administer… I know it’s been portrayed as a witch hunt, but we don''t know what the motive is.”

The Chicago group receives roughly $8 million annually from the federal government.

Gustavo Suarez, communications directions at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said the feds give his group about $2 million a year. He dismissed the inquiry.

“It''s a silly distraction,” Suarez said. “It keeps us from focusing and draws attention away from the real issue which is an epidemic that is growing both domestically and internationally.”

Even the possibility that Foster may have obtained the names of the meeting attendees from an HHS staffer did not move AIDS activists to be critical of HHS.

“[Foster] seems to just come up with stuff,” said Anne Donnelly, director of public policy at Project Inform. That San Francisco group receives a “small amount of federal money,” according to Donnelly. She suggested that Michael Petrelis, a longtime gay and AIDS activist, may have given the list to Foster.

Petrelis has made common cause with right-wing groups and politicians who are seeking to cut or eliminate federal funding of HIV programs targeting gay and bisexual men. He did not respond to a call seeking comment.

Groups that do not receive federal funds––Foster named at least three such groups––were more aggressive in their comments.

Mark Milano, a member of ACT UP New York, called the inquiry “McCarthyism” in an interview.

“I think the damage has been done,” he said. “I think any organization that is getting federal funds is going to be frightened and I don''t know how you reverse that… The actions are clearly sending a message that this administration doesn’t care about AIDS. An action like this shows that they are even willing to go further by preventing people from protesting their lack of actions.”

Chris Collins, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, made similar comments.