Washington Blade - August 30, 2002
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services was only complying with a
request by members of Congress when it began compiling federal funding
information on 12 AIDS service organizations whose members heckled HHS
Secretary Tommy Thompson at the international AIDS conference in
Barcelona, an HHS spokesperson said this week.
HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said the collection of funding information on
the groups, all of which is part of the public record, was neither an
audit nor an investigation but merely an effort to fulfill a request by 12
members of the House of Representatives.
But officials with several AIDS groups, including the D.C.-based National
Association of People With AIDS, expressed alarm that any type of review
of organizations that joined a protest against Thompson at the Barcelona
AIDS conference in July appeared to be a form of retaliation against those
Among those making the request was Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), chair of the
House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy &
Officials with the 12 AIDS organizations in question signed their names to
a flier that was distributed at the AIDS conference to explain why they
supported a protest demonstration against Thompson at the time he
delivered a speech at the conference. Thompson had been scheduled to
discuss the U.S. policies and programs for combating the global AIDS
Using bullhorns and whistles, the protesters completely drowned out
Thompson's speech. Pierce said some of the protesters climbed onto the
stage near the podium where Thompson was standing, but none of them
threatened to physically harm the HHS secretary. According to Pierce,
Thompson and other U.S. officials decided against asking Spanish
authorities to eject the protesters, and conference organizers took no
action on their own to eject them.
Ernest Hopkins, a veteran D.C. gay and AIDS activist and an official with
the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said the flier distributed by the
protesters included a list of grievances against the Bush administration's
domestic and international AIDS policies. Hopkins said the San Francisco
AIDS Foundation was among several AIDS groups that did not sign the
protest document and did not support the protesters' decision to prevent
Thompson from being heard.
Ironically, Hopkins said, his organization was among four AIDS
organizations added to the list of the groups placed under scrutiny for
their participation in the Thompson protest. Hopkins said the four
additional groups found themselves on the list of groups to be reviewed
after they joined the original 12 groups in a post-protest meeting with
"It actually turned out to be a very good and productive meeting," said
HHS spokesperson Pierce, who said the meeting took place in a hotel near
the conference site. He said the AIDS groups requested the meeting and
Thompson promptly agreed to attend.
'Chilling effect' feared
Among the 12 groups that signed on to the protest statement, in addition
to NAPWA, were the National Minority AIDS Council of D.C. and the Gay
Men's Health Crisis of New York. NMAC spokesperson Robert Dabney declined
comment, saying that Paul Kawata, the group's executive director, asked
him not discuss the matter with the press.
Last week, Dabney told the Washington Post that HHS's Health Resources &
Services Administration, which oversees federal AIDS programs, asked NMAC
to document its spending at the Barcelona conference. NMAC receives about
$4.7 million a year in federal funds to help local AIDS groups provide
services to minority communities, Dabney told the Blade.
"The question we have to ask is what is the intent of this," Dabney told
the Post. "Our fear is that audits will have a chilling effect on these
Pierce said HHS has no intention of conducting an audit of the 16 groups
named by the House members, although he said he could not predict what
Congress would do upon receiving the information from HHS.
"They asked us for the level of funding we contribute to the AIDS
conference," Pierce said of the House inquiry. "They also asked us how
much we fund these individual organizations," said Pierce, who added that
HHS would forward the information as soon as its obtains it from its
various offices and bureaus. "That's all we're doing," he said.
Wayne Turner, an AIDS activist with the local group Act Up D.C., said he
has no objection to HHS or Congress conducting an audit of the nation's
AIDS organizations that received federal funds.
"I do object to basing an audit on a protest against the government,"
Turner said. "That's not a reason to do this," he said, adding, "Yelling
at Tommy Thompson is not probable cause to conduct an audit."
Added Turner, "I hope this doesn't detract from the real need for these
audits. We need oversight and accountability of these funds."
Asked if Act Up plans to ask Congress to halt any investigation into the
16 groups under scrutiny from the Barcelona conference, Turner said he was
certain "nothing would come of this."
"If we have a few AIDS executives sweating bullets now, I'm not going to
loose any sleep over it," he said.
News reporter Lou Chibbaro Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.