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Vicious Cycle 

Federal investigators clear AIDS prevention programs of wrongdoing -- and then reinvestigate them

Wednesday, May 7 2003
David Evans, the slight, soft-spoken program director of the Castro's Stop AIDS Project, and the group's publicist, Shana Krochmal, share a couch in Evans' closet-size office, reflecting upon their bizarre season of stardom. There were the calls from Big Media, such as The O'Reilly Factor. There was an endless stream of interview requests from newspapers around the world. Congressional staffers called, as did aides to White House Cabinet officials. Eventually, teams of federal auditors came, followed by high-ranking officials with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Those visits, in turn, spawned audit reports, then more phone calls in a cycle that has continued for more than a year.

"There was something so surreal about it all," Evans recalls. "Most of us doing this work don't come from backgrounds where one does a lot of talking with people in high places. Suddenly we were getting urgent calls saying we had to respond to Congressman So and So, or we were getting calls from officials who would intimate that the president of the United States was somehow personally involved."

The Stop AIDS Project's peculiar adventure -- in which a bullying local gadfly apparently joined forces with conservative Christian politicians in what looked like a campaign to harass HIV/ AIDS prevention programs out of existence -- has become a story without end.

After gaining experience harassing the Stop AIDS Project by exploiting the federal audit process -- a system set up with the noble goals of preventing government fraud and waste -- right-wing politicians went on to use audits and inquiries as a kind of cudgel against numerous AIDS prevention programs.

Neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the Inspector General's Office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services would tell me exactly how many, or which, federally funded anti-AIDS groups are now under investigation. But officials with AIDS prevention organizations around the country say federal probes, instigated at the request of fundamentalist congressmen, are now occupying an important portion of these groups' time. And in an unusual reversal of ordinary investigative protocol, where sleuths pursue hints of wrongdoing in hopes of finding more, these examinations seem to be spurred by Republicans' frustration at so far finding virtually no wrongdoing at all.

According to AIDS activists around the country, this extraordinary AIDS-funding gumshoe campaign has crossed the line from scrupulous government oversight -- a very good thing -- to relentless politically motivated harassment. This is bad, bad, bad.

Investigators are looking at "every penny to program providers that do progressive work, like Stop AIDS," says William Smith, program director of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. "If it's intimidating for a national program like us to be investigated, what is it like for a small program that doesn't understand the Bush administration's intimidation tactics?"

Early last year, highly publicized GOP outrage over Stop AIDS Project workshops, which discussed cruising, masturbation, condoms, and other such startling issues, was followed by an extraordinary series of federal audits; the Department of Health and Human Services sent a team of investigators for repeated, lengthy visits. The Centers for Disease Control sent high-level teams from Atlanta. The charge: Stop AIDS had produced safe-sex materials and workshops that were obscene. Worse, the group allegedly violated a law prohibiting use of federal funds to encourage sex -- yes, there really is such a federal blue law, and conservative Christians take it very seriously. The right-wing allegation was repeated in newspaper articles and editorials as if it were fact: Tax dollars are being squandered to promote debauchery.

But the resulting audit reports emphatically vindicated Stop AIDS. The organization had run racy-seeming AIDS education materials past an S.F. Health Department committee set up under federal guidelines to judge the materials according to San Francisco community standards. Such local policies were created around the country in light of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that say obscenity is a highly local notion; San Franciscans' ideas of what's offensive may be different from those of, say, an Indiana congressman's.

For instance, Stop AIDS's calendar includes a May workshop titled "Top, Bottom, Versatile," the description of which asks, "[D]o you like taking it? Giving? Both?" The course's purpose is to discuss "roles, power and other topics related to anal play and health." Translation: a workshop discussing complex interpersonal negotiations regarding condom use, so that fewer people will catch HIV and die.

AIDS activists say these federal inquiries, which they believe are politically rather than fiscally motivated, tie up hundreds of hours of volunteer and staff time. They waste many thousands of dollars in federal staff time, airline tickets, and other audit expenses. And, perhaps more important, they discourage AIDS workers from pursuing any program that might catch the attention of a right-wing conservative, undermining AIDS education efforts nationwide.

The charge that Stop AIDS broke laws making it illegal to use federal funds to promote sexual intercourse likewise went nowhere: The promiscuous gay men who make up Stop AIDS's target audience need no encouragement to have sex. And finally, the group passed a financial audit swimmingly.

It seems someone neglected to tell Republican conservatives the Castro is a poor spot to cruise for unfastidiousness.

The glowing audit reports did nothing to stem the requests for investigations. Like a marauding ghost ship, the inquiries and reviews of federally funded AIDS programs never subsided, although media attention has.

A CDC spokeswoman tells me that during the past few months that agency has sent officials to 11 randomly selected community-based AIDS prevention organizations "as part of the CDC's ongoing efforts to look at HIV prevention programs. These site visits and reviews will continue."

The HHS inspector general, meanwhile, has completed audits of several AIDS prevention programs in addition to its extensive investigation of the Stop AIDS Project. A spokeswoman tells me the audits will go on. "We told [Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson] that we would do additional work in this area," she says. "There is other work still going on, but we've never identified the locations that we're at."

The March 1 edition of Thompson Healthcare Company's newsletter AIDS Alert provides some clues. Inspector general auditors are examining the Global AIDS Program, which provides federal money to attack AIDS overseas, according to the newsletter. Federal sleuths are looking at how the CDC accounts for spending on HIV program activities. They're conducting an audit of how the CDC monitors federal grants to programs such as the Stop AIDS Project. And, once the audit of the Global AIDS Program is done, investigators will conduct an audit into whether the CDC obeys federal laws in deciding which AIDS groups to fund, the AIDS Alert article says.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., a group that promotes sex education, has been subjected to similar scrutiny. Twenty-four members of Congress recently sent a letter to Secretary Thompson asking for an investigation into SIECUS, along with Advocates for Youth and Planned Parenthood. These groups had jointly sponsored a Web site protesting the diversion of AIDS funding to Christian fundamentalist-backed "abstinence education." A federal inquiry soon followed. As in the other cases, it turned up no wrongdoing.

"We're huge proponents of the idea that tax dollars should be spent appropriately. Anyone who says we're trying to undermine the appropriate use of tax dollars is throwing up a red herring," says SIECUS's Smith. "When you have more auditors in a program than actual people doing the program, that tells me there's something else at work."

It's fitting that the cycle of vindication followed by stepped-up federal inquiry now haunting AIDS prevention programs began in San Francisco. Conservative Christians tend to fetishize obscure sexual practices, and they often turn to our city for help. I experienced this phenomenon four years ago when I wrote about a sexually obscene performance art piece; the story appeared on dozens of right-wing Web sites, and years later it still seems to get reposted to a new one every month. And so it was that in last year's saturation coverage of the Stop AIDS Project, stories quoting multiple conservative voices tended to include the term "rimming."

In addition to providing fodder for fundamentalist sexual obsessions, San Francisco suffers another tradition, equally distasteful, which has played an important role in the ongoing federal AIDS program witch-hunt. Like 17th-century Salem, San Francisco tends to aggrandize lonely, mean gadflies. The Stop AIDS Project has suffered the tireless attention of self-proclaimed AIDS activist Michael Petrelis, whose greatest fame came from being jailed last year on charges that he and a cohort stalked and made criminal threats against employees of the S.F. Chronicle and the Department of Public Health.

In news reports, Web log references, gay newspaper citations, and copies of mass e-mails from Republican congressional staffers given me by Krochmal, the Stop AIDS publicist, Petrelis is described as having spawned the endless audits by writing to members of Congress complaining that taxpayer dollars were being spent on what he described as sexually explicit anti-AIDS workshops.

Petrelis' precise motives for doing this are hard to pin down; he styles himself as a good-government, public-openness advocate, saying federally funded AIDS programs receive insufficient oversight. He also says AIDS education programs stigmatize homosexuals. He's joined forces with AIDS denier David Pasquarelli in a campaign to reopen San Francisco bathhouses, saying he dislikes having to travel to other cities for anonymous sex. In compendium, Petrelis' odd list of causes reads like the sort of activist résumé typical of San Francisco arrivals who have discovered that the city's inclusive, help-the-little-guy political culture can be easily hijacked by self-promoters.

Evans, the Stop AIDS Project program director, says Petrelis has worked in concert with AIDS-audit-obsessed congressional aide Roland Foster to keep the pressure on HIV education groups. Both Petrelis and Foster have been quoted by the Washington Times as saying programs such as Stop AIDS are ineffective and waste taxpayer money. An August e-mail from Petrelis to former Stop AIDS Project Director Steve Gibson mentions a Stop AIDS schedule and asks: "Can you tell me if any HIV prevention funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are being used to put on these forums? If CDC funds are being used for these events, can you inform me as to how much CDC money is being spent on the meetings?"

Foster, a staffer on the House Government Reform committee, did not return my call requesting comment. Petrelis refused in an e-mail message to be interviewed. He wrote that he would respond to written questions by e-mail; I generally don't agree to this type of e-mail Q&A because it results in non sequitur responses with no opportunity for follow-up, making it a waste of time.

Though I didn't get to speak with him, I did get the sense that Petrelis has been pleased with Republican success in pressuring AIDS prevention programs. Last month the Los Angeles Times reported that the federal government will curtail spending on safe-sex programs designed to prevent HIV among uninfected people in favor of a campaign to stop the spread of the virus by those who already have it. AIDS activists say this reduced funding of safe-sex education programs, including the Stop AIDS Project, is the result of pressure from both the Bush administration and conservative members of Congress who have objected to explicit HIV prevention materials.

It's perhaps an apt conclusion to the Republican pressure Petrelis apparently helped launch.

In a posting to his Web log last week titled "I am the happy homosexual," he praised the L.A. Times story:

"My happiness stems from the tone of the story and from a quote [the Times reporter] got from the executive director of the National Association of People With AIDS, Terje Anderson, about the CDC shift: 'There ain't going to be any more safe-sex workshops. There ain't going to be any more public attitude campaigns around this.'"

About The Author

Matt Smith


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