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The Washington Blade
AIDS groups see funding review as retaliation: Hill request for data linked to protest at Barcelona conference
Lou Chibbaro Jr.
August 30, 2002
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 groups.

Among those making the request was Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), chair of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy & Human Resources.

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 pandemic.

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 Thompson.

"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 organizations." 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 lchibbaro@washblade.com.

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