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May 17, 2005

AIDS ACTION BOARD CHAIR FIRED AS L.A. AIDS CZAR IN POLITICAL FUNDRAISING SCANDAL (Updated)

Yet another scandal involving AIDS Action -- the Washington lobby that bills itself as "the national voice on AIDS" -- broke this morning, as both the L.A. Times and the L.A. Daily News report that the Chairman of AIDS Action's board of directors, Charles "Chuck" Henry, has been fired from his job as head of the Los Angeles Office of AIDS Programs and Policy after seven years, in a political fundraising scandal.

As L.A.'s AIDS czar, Henry was responsible for an $82.5 million budget, and was the man who decided which AIDS service organizations got city funding. Now, Henry stands accused of trying to shake down groups in the AIDS community for campaign contributions to a candidate in L.A.'s mayoral election (voters go to the polls today in the final runoff for mayor).

Readers of DIRELAND will recall that we've been highly critical of AIDS Action during Henry's long tenure as its board chairman (see, for example, "AIDS Action Jumps Into Bed with Bush and the AIDS-phobic Republicans.") When AIDS Action's executive director, Marsha Martin, Aids_action_1 used her position to help organize a "celebration" of Bush and the Republicans' 2004 election victory (an inaugural dinner whose proceeds went to a front-group for Big Pharma that has lobbied against use of generic AIDS-fighting meds in the world's poorest countries), Henry defended Martin's actions and led the AIDS Action board's whitewash of her stomach-turning conduct. Shortly after all this, longtime AIDS Action board member Craig Miller resigned, with a blast at Henry & Co.'s compromising with "evil" Bush policies on AIDS.

The L.A. Henry scandal has been percolating for some time, and is not limited to these political shakedowns. Respected, veteran L.A. gay journalist Karen Ocamb (a former CBS reporter) recounted, in a long March 17 article for In magazine (L.A.'s largest circulation gay publication) how, as far back as 2002, a series of independent reports on Henry's management of L.A.'s large AIDS budget raised charges of favoritism, conflicts of interest, and mis-management.  Henry and his political cronies, however, succeeded in having these reports buried. Ocamb's fine, groundbreaking reporting puts to shame that of the L.A. Times, which was slow to take up the Henry story and, when it did, deprived its readers of the extensive account of Henry's record of dubious behavior in public office which Ocamb provided in her damningly detailed dissection.

Now, with this latest affair, Henry himself is revealed as an ethically compromised, arrogantly power-mad bureaucrat, who used his puissant position as the keeper of L.A.'s purse-strings on AIDS to blackmail budget-stressed AIDS groups into coughing up political cash for the man who will undoubtedly be chosen today as L.A.'s next mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. In politics, raising money for those who hold electoral power is a classic way for a bureaucrat to try to keep his job. (Villaraigosa's campaign spokesman denies any involvement in Henry's shakedowns). Henry's ouster comes following an investigation of his political fund-raising by the L.A. Department of Health Services, a probe requested by AIDS-friendly members of the L.A. Board of Supervisors after an acrimonious debate.

Henry's firing from his job as L.A.'s AIDS czar, and the hydra-headed scandals (recounted by Ocamb) which led up to his removal, are eloquent and disturbing testimony to the ethical climate that reigns at AIDS Action, whose board Henry chairs. AIDS Action is dominated by a handful of self-perpetuating, nest-feathering bureaucrats who care only about the Ryan White Act funding that pays their often-lavish salaries--Henry among them. They're out of touch with the real needs of the AIDS community, and their tunnel-vision focus solely on Ryan White has led them to ignore major issues affecting people with AIDS and AIDS prevention, as well as to soft-peddle criticism of whoever is in power in the White House -- even when those in power act against the interests of the AIDS community. The AIDS Action boycott of last year's vital AIDSvote campaign -- which has now meshed into the mushrooming new Campaign to End AIDS -- should have shown the unconvinced that AA has outlived its usefulness.

It matters little that Henry's political shakedown of financially strapped AIDS community groups was for the benefit of the liberal candidate in the L.A. mayoralty, former California Assembly speaker Villaraigosa. If I were in L.A., I'd vote for Villaraigosa -- despite the fact that his muted campaign this year is less excitingly progressive than the one he ran four years ago -- if only because of the disgusting, racist campaign that has been run by his opponent, corrupt incumbent Mayor James Hahn (see, for example, an account of Hahn's race-baiting two days ago on the blog of my companero Marc Cooper -- Cooper has done a superb job of reporting on the mayor's race, both in the L.A. Weekly and in The Nation, where a May 5 Cooper article provides a sharp-eyed review of the political stakes in today's mayoral race).

But Henry's betrayal of his public trust--and of the AIDS community--in using his power as L.A. AIDS czar to browbeat AIDS groups into coughing up dough to help him keep his job, crosses an ethical line that no supposed AIDS leader should ever breach. And it shows the sort of mentality that dominates the crowd running AIDS Action. The Ohio AIDS Coalition earlier this year drew the proper conclusion -- and withdrew from AIDS Action, as the Columbus weekly Gay People's Chronicle reported. Let's hope other AIDS service organizations follow suit, so that the AIDS community can create a new Washington lobby that will truly be "the national voice on AIDS." And the exciting new Campaign to End AIDS, which I heartily endorse, is the right place to start.

UPDATE: It turns out the Henry is even more dubious a character than the latest incident above reveals. The Pasadena Star-News reported on July 28, 2002 that Henry phonied his credentials to obtain the job as L.A. AIDS czar, claiming to have a law degree he never earned. The paper reported that "Current and former members of the county’s HIV Commission, doctors and AIDS patients say that the director of the Office of AIDS Programs and Policies misrepresented himself during the hiring process, leading people to believe he was an attorney, and used his exaggerated education to gain power and intimidation of those who rely on his graces for funding and services." The Star-News reported that "The title JD, juris doctorate, was listed until a couple months ago next to Henry’s name on a county roster and on a nameplate...{but] his highest academic achievement is a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations. He attended law school for a few years but never graduated, did not have a juris doctorate degree and was not the attorney many say they believed he was." A member of the L.A. County HIV Commission, Geneviève M. Clavreul, told the Star-News that "This is a man who is worse than the Mafia. Hes not making sure the money is truly going to help the HIV/AIDS patients who need it most and . . . intimidates those who question his decisions." This record raises the question of why that Henry was allowed to continue in his job as L.A.'s AIDS czar for so long. Now the question is: how long will he continue to reign as the chair of the AIDS Action Board?

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Comments

Henry has had shady dealings in the Los Angeles AIDS community for quite sometime. I am happy to see him go.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 18, 2005 11:37:28 AM

The move against Chuck Henry was quite overdue, Doug. And there are some of us here on the East Coast, who recall Henry all too well from his tenure as a senior executive at the New York State Health Department's AIDS Institute. You can bet there's some serious schadenfreude goin' on.

Now if we can just get rid of the wretched Marsha Martin....

Posted by: George De Stefano | May 18, 2005 9:51:59 AM

Did you know that today is International Day Against Homophobia?

Posted by: cntodd | May 17, 2005 6:49:33 PM

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