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Staggering need, striking neglect

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A three-part documentary explores troubled AIDS groups and the lives affected by a lack of adequate care.

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The disease has spread so fast, to every corner of the capital, that health officials call it a "modern epidemic." The District's AIDS rate is higher than that of some countries in West Africa.

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Twenty-five years ago, the District was on the forefront of the fight against the disease. City leaders created a government-funded AIDS office and began to pour tens of millions of dollars into a network of local groups that promised critical frontline support.

Early on, the District focused on white gay men in more affluent areas. In recent years, however, city officials have pushed to support community-based groups in poorer neighborhoods that had traditionally been underserved by AIDS agencies.

But the program morphed into something of a free-for-all among many nonprofit groups, enabled by a city agency that routinely gave out money but failed to ensure the funds were used to help people with the disease.

The waste has spanned every arm of the HIV/AIDS Administration. As the steward of the city's AIDS dollars, the agency receives about $100 million a year, largely from the federal government, for prevention, medical care, housing, case management and support services. Much of the money goes to large medical clinics.

From 2004 to 2008, about $16 million a year was divided among 90 small nonprofit groups.

More than 20 failed to file tax returns or secure a city business license, The Post found. Some groups submitted employee résumés and consulting contracts with false information, including fake addresses and credentials. Others had a history of financial problems or had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel or executive pay. One Northeast nonprofit group paid its executive director $357,000 in salary and benefits at a time when it was cutting back services.

In all, one dollar of every three went to groups with identified deficiencies.

Grants were given for vague reasons, and the results were often not tracked. Monitors at the city's HIV/AIDS Administration were supposed to provide oversight, but inspections were sporadic and often done by phone. Records show that monitors frequently focused on whether the groups had spent enough of their grant money -- not whether the spending was legitimate.

Four of the most troubled groups were funded during the tenure of former HIV/AIDS Administration housing chief Debra Rowe, who allowed grant money to flow even after her staff chronicled deficiencies, records show.

The executive director of one of the groups -- awarded about $4.5 million in recent years -- had hired Rowe's son. The director also gave work to her father and uncle at a nightclub that he ran next door to his nonprofit group.

"Everybody knew if you needed anything down at the AIDS agency, call Debra," said Ron Harris, a local AIDS case manager. "There was all this money coming into the city, and she was on the ground floor."


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