Senators Urge Investigation of Alleged AIDS Funding Abuses

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

Editor's Note: Contains language some readers may find offensive.

(CNSNews.com) - Federal funds, intended to help individuals suffering from HIV/AIDS, were used instead to make $60,000 worth of phone calls to a psychic hotline and for shopping trips to Neiman Marcus, according to two U.S. senators who want the inspector general designee of the Health and Human Services Department to launch an investigation once she assumes her job.

Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the finance committee chairman and ranking Republican, sent a letter to Inspector General Designee Janet Rehnquist, asking her to examine the direction of federal AIDS dollars under the "Ryan White Care Act."

According to the letter, "The host of stories highlighting misuse of Ryan White CARE Act funds is certainly discouraging because it means that not only are taxpayer dollars wasted, but also thousands of individuals suffering from HIV/AIDS are being denied the care and assistance that they need -- and that Congress intended to provide them."

A Senate Finance Committee staff member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed the panel's concern with the alleged corruption involving the money earmarked for AIDS.

"We developed a real concern after reading media accounts of the misspending of AIDS money in the CDC (Centers for Disease Control)," he said. "We released the letter, so that Inspector General Designee Rehnquist would be aware of these abuses."

"There is no excuse for wasting money," the staff member added.

Grassley said he wants assurances that every dollar appropriated for AIDS prevention and treatment reaches those in need.

"Shopping trips and Caribbean conferences don't help AIDS patients. Care and treatment help AIDS patients. As long as this illness exists, every tax dollar in the Ryan White program must go toward care and treatment," he said.

Others critical of the alleged abuses say they're relieved that the senators are calling for an investigation.

"There is evidence that a good portion of the money earmarked for AIDS prevention and awareness has been misspent," said Sean Rushton, spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste. "This is of concern, not only to taxpayers, but also to people who are suffering from this terrible disease."

Cliff Kincaid, a freelance journalist and AIDS accountability activist said real changes are necessary in how AIDS funds are appropriated. "I hope that Rehnquist will be able to buck the AIDS establishment," he said. "The Inspector General needs to encourage whistle blowers to come forward, and the abuses have to be brought to the surface."

The alleged misuse of federal AIDS dollars is underscored by allegations that a San Francisco based group, STOP AIDS San Francisco, used tax money to sponsor so-called "fisting" and flirting seminars. Fisting is a homosexual act in which one person inserts a hand up another person's rectum.

The group gets its funding from a number of sources, including the federal government, but STOP AIDS San Francisco denies that federal money pays for non-AIDS prevention activities.

"The money for the fisting seminar came from private sources, not from CDC funds," said Carlton Smith, spokesman for STOP AIDS San Francisco. "We do receive money from the CDC, but we use it for programs such as condom distribution."

The CDC said that it would not comment about any potential Inspector General's investigation.