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D.C. Council Member Catania Fights With Director of AIDS Clinic Over Mission

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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

As the District struggles to respond to an HIV/AIDS epidemic, a nasty fight is underway between a powerful member of the D.C. Council and leaders of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which has been on the front lines of fighting the disease for three decades.

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The battle between the clinic and council member David A. Catania (I), the openly gay chairman of the Health Committee, reflects the challenges city leaders and health providers face in working together to combat a disease that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) calls the No. 1 public health threat.

The flap centers on Whitman-Walker's efforts to expand into a full-service health-care provider as it struggles with declining revenues.

Concerned that the clinic is abandoning its historical ties to the city's gay community, Catania alleges that the clinic is mismanaged and could close because it is failing to tap new sources of revenue. In preparation for a council hearing Monday, Whitman-Walker turned over 2,000 documents to Catania, who promises "to explore substantial allegations of mismanagement."

At a January council hearing, Catania accused Donald Blanchon, the clinic's chief executive officer, of "gross negligence and malfeasance" and suggested he be replaced.

Whitman-Walker's board of directors, which has rallied around Blanchon, was so shaken by the hearing that it asked for an independent audit of Catania's charges.

The 300-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, refutes many of Catania's allegations. Catania calls it a "total whitewash" conducted by the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP, where James J. Sandman, chairman of Whitman-Walker's board of directors, used to work.

Yesterday, Sandman resigned rather than testify before Catania's committee. The chief counsel for the D.C. public school system, Sandman wrote in a letter to Catania that he wants to "avoid any potential conflict of interest." He could not be reached for comment.

Blanchon and some Whitman-Walker board members accuse Catania of punishing the clinic after it laid off several of his friends

"We are supposed to be fighting HIV/AIDS in this city, and there is no good reason this [investigation] is continuing," said Paul Murphy, a clinic board member. "I do believe this has reached a point now where this is a vendetta."

Catania, who says he has directed more than $6 million in city funds to the clinic in recent years, dismissed the notion.

"My feelings toward Mr. Blanchon are not personal; they are professional," he said, adding that fundraising has dropped 57 percent since Blanchon took over.

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