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Congressmen seek accounting of AIDS fraud complaints

By Debbie Cenziper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

Two Republican congressmen who help oversee billions of dollars for people with AIDS are asking the federal government for an accounting of fraud and mismanagement complaints leveled against AIDS programs nationwide.

Reps. Joe L. Barton (Tex.) and Greg Walden (Ore.) sent a letter Thursday to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration that raised questions about the agency's oversight of AIDS programs. The lawmakers cited a recent Washington Post series that found the D.C. Department of Health had awarded more than $25 million, largely in federal funds, to AIDS nonprofit groups that delivered substandard services or failed to account for any work at all.

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.

More than 15,000 people have HIV or AIDS in the District, 3 percent of the population who are older than 12.

"Washington, D.C., has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the nation and $25 million dedicated to help people living with HIV/AIDS has instead found its way into the pockets of those interested in making a buck," Barton, the ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said in a statement. "It's unconscionable."

The lawmakers' probe focuses on federal funding provided under the Ryan White Act, which pays for medical care and support services for about 500,000 low-income people each year. The Health Resources and Services Administration, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, oversees the funding. The D.C. metropolitan region receives about $45 million annually.

Many of the troubled nonprofit groups identified by The Post had received Ryan White funding from the city, including an organization launched by a man who once ran one of the District's largest cocaine rings. The group, which was awarded more than $1 million from the fund, had been criticized by city monitors, former clients and other AIDS groups for a lack of services and supplies, missing records and questionable expenses.

In a letter addressed to Mary Wakefield, administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration, Barton and Walden requested a list of programs cited by the agency in the past four years for failing to properly oversee Ryan White grants. They also asked for an accounting of complaints about AIDS fraud and documentation detailing how the problems have been addressed. The lawmakers requested a response by mid-February.

Barton said the Energy and Commerce Committee had asked in 2008 for an assessment of whether the grants had been properly monitored by the federal government. The Health Resources and Services Administration said at the time that it was conducting more site visits and enhancing training.

"Something is still very, very wrong, and we intend to find out just what it is," said Barton, who recently supported the reauthorization of the Ryan White Act, first enacted two decades ago in honor of the Indiana teenager who died of AIDS.

Health Resources and Services Administration official Douglas Morgan said the agency would respond to the congressmen by their deadline. The agency "works with Ryan White grant recipients who have experienced difficulties on several fronts and has bolstered efforts to offer effective assistance in a number of ways," Morgan said in a statement.

The lawmakers' inquiry is the latest in a series of measures to shore up the District's AIDS services. In recent months, Attorney General Peter Nickles launched a citywide investigation of troubled AIDS programs while D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) pushed to correct problems cited by federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In addition to Barton and Walden, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) have called for an investigation of the city's AIDS program.

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