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.
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.
The clinic-sponsored report says Whitman-Walker, incorporated in 1978, is evolving as the nature of HIV/AIDS changes in the city.
When Whitman-Walker began responding to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the disease largely afflicted gay white men. HIV/AIDs is now a citywide epidemic.
Last month, city health officials released a report that least 3 percent of residents have HIV/AIDS, which it called a "severe epidemic." Black men, with an infection rate of nearly 7 percent, carry the weight of the disease. Nearly 3 percent of black women and white men have the disease, according to the report.
"We see a whole bunch of people in the District of Columbia -- gay, straight, black, white -- now at risk, and our job is we need to retool how we talk about this," Blanchon said in an interview.
Efforts to broaden its health services come as the clinic, which relies on private donations and state and local subsidies, has been battered by financial turmoil that almost forced it to close in 2005.
Blanchon, the clinic's first heterosexual director, took over in 2006. A few months later, he started transitioning the clinic into a federally approved health center.
But its financial hurdles continued, including a steep drop in its fundraising. As a result, the clinic curtailed or eliminated several programs that were targeted exclusively at the gay community. It also closed satellite centers in Northern Virginia and Maryland.
In December, Whitman-Walker laid off 45 employees, including three senior-level managers who had been with the organization for more than a decade.
In January, Catania suggested that Blanchon laid off the three managers because they are lesbians, which he said underscores his assertion that the clinic is turning its back on the gay community.
"No one is suggesting you can't expand the mission of the clinic to the non-GLBT community, but what many of us feel is happening is in the effort to expand, that is really just a guise . . . that the real intent is to extinguish the GLBT influence," Catania said.
Blanchon said it was "preposterous" to suggest that sexual orientation played a role in the layoffs, saying they were aimed at "administrative and management overhead."
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who sits on the Health Committee, said she is puzzled by the controversy.
"I have read the report . . . and they seem to be doing a great job," she said.
But one of the women laid off the week before Christmas, Pat Hawkins, says the clinic has lost its focus.
"Mr. Blanchon has a whole different vision for what the clinic should be, and those of us in the GLBT community are heartbroken," said Hawkins, who started volunteering at the clinic in 1984 and eventually became its associate executive director.
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who is gay, headed the clinic from 1984 to 1999 and said "recent decisions by Whitman-Walker have been very problematic."
"I think whether or not the clinic is being properly managed is a very appropriate question for the D.C. government, which has invested so much money for so long into the clinic," said Graham, who is requesting that the clinic rehire several laid-off staff members.
Catania questions why the clinic shut satellite centers in Maryland and Virginia without first pushing state lawmakers to help subsidize them. He also disagrees with the reduction of staff at the clinic's Max Robinson Center in Southeast Washington, the part of the city at the heart of efforts now to fight HIV/AIDS.
Blanchon appears be digging in for a fight. This week, he sent out a mass e-mail urging recipients to call council members and say, "Enough is enough."
"Council member Catania is still determined to use his political power to burden us in a political and personal vendetta. . . . We think you would agree that our best efforts should be focused on fighting HIV/AIDS in the District of Columbia," he wrote.
Catania said he is fighting for the survival of Whitman-Walker.
"This center, and all it has represented for the community, is slipping away," he said.