Sick Figures

Funding cuts, allegations of fraud, and a marriage gone sour: La Liga Contra SIDA falls on hard times

The League Against AIDS is in such financial disrepair that last weekend most of its eighteen employees were dispatched to the streets of Little Havana, donation cans in hand, to solicit change from passersby. The Dade-based nonprofit, known to its clients (the majority of whom are Hispanic) as La Liga Contra SIDA, has lost two major sources of federal funding amid turmoil on its board of directors, allegations of fraud leveled by clients and former staffers, and negative evaluations published by a county-contracted firm.

"We don't have a problem with our funding sources," insists Manuel Laureano-Vega, who cofounded the league in 1988 and has served as its executive director ever since. "We have a cash-flow problem because we don't have adequate support from the community." Laureano-Vega also complains of a Catch-22 situation involving the "rigid" reimbursement policies of his government benefactors. "Yeah, we owe [$13,000 in] payroll taxes," he acknowledges. "Metro-Dade is telling me they're not giving me [a $100,000 grant] because we haven't paid our taxes. But we can't pay the taxes because they're delinquent in reimbursing us." Meanwhile, Laureano-Vega adds, the organization, whose annual operating budget is about $900,000, will be forced to close down one of its two offices.

Last year Metro-Dade allocated more than $18 million in federal funds to about 40 local nonprofit agencies that provide care and counseling for AIDS patients. The League Against AIDS was promised nearly $260,000, payable in reimbursement for expenditures. Subsequently, the group was slated to receive an additional $100,000, an unspent block of funds the county must allocate by April 3 or forfeit to the federal government.

Daniel T. Wall, who oversees the distribution of federal AIDS funds for Metro's Audit and Management Services Department, confirms that the county withholds reimbursement until a nonprofit agency produces proof of how the funds were spent. But Wall says the $100,000 has nothing to do with delinquent payroll taxes. Those funds were denied earlier this month, Wall explains, after two former clients of the league lodged complaints against the organization. Because the unspent money had to be allocated by April 3, there wasn't enough time to investigate the allegations, and the county decided to give the money to other local providers instead.

According to Wall, the two former League Against AIDS clients alleged that their names and patient ID numbers were used to secure transportation for other clients who weren't eligible for that service; that client information was falsified to allow personal (as opposed to medically related) use of transportation services; and that the league refused to supply services the clients needed. Apart from those complaints, the county noted that the organization hadn't submitted its annual audit or a list of its grievance policies, and that its payroll taxes were delinquent.

"It's crap," Elaine Abreu, the newly appointed chairwoman of the league's board of directors, says of the clients' allegations. A private investigator, Abreu was asked by Laureano-Vega to check out the charges. She contends that the group's accusers have mental problems, that they refused to speak to her, and that other people contradict their statements.

Daniel Wall says he's still waiting for the league to present documentation disproving the allegations. He adds that subject to approval by the Metro Commission, the group still might be awarded about $85,000 over the next four months, "if they alleviate all our concerns."

A three-year contract with HRS that netted the league approximately $100,000 annually expired January 31, and the organization's proposal for continued funding in 1995 was denied. According to HRS spokesman Tony Welch, the proposal was nixed because the League Against AIDS ranked too low on the list of applicants for the money. But HRS, which administers funds for AIDS education and prevention under the federal Minority AIDS Prevention Initiative (MAPI), had warned the league at least twice during 1994 that it was not complying with the terms of its contract. James E. Jackson, chief of the agency's MAPI program, wrote Laureano-Vega a letter that reprimanded the league for not submitting an audit, for requesting reimbursement for "expense items that have not been paid," for failing to document how two employees performed the work for which they were paid, and for failing to satisfy the contract's requirements for making educational presentations.

Laureano-Vega protests that reimbursement and productivity problems are due to "rigid and inflexible" contracts that confuse providers who are trying to comply simultaneously with local and federal requirements. He says he expects the audit, which was due at the end of October 1994, to be completed soon. More generally, he blames much of the situation on a virulent campaign being waged against him by his estranged wife Mireille Tribie, a co-founder of the League Against AIDS who worked part-time as the group's deputy director. (The couple's divorce is not yet final.)

Tribie, who was fired by the board on February 22 after repeated confrontations with her husband, had approached HRS officials this past fall with several allegations regarding the league. She complained that one employee was being paid with MAPI funds but working at a different job for a separate corporation. Further, she claimed the board of directors rarely met, was not involved in the agency's affairs, and didn't conform to state regulations for nonprofit corporations. She also alleged that league officials requested reimbursement for items that had never been purchased. Another former league employee, Edgar Figueroa, wrote the agency a letter backing Tribie's contentions.

HRS spokesman Tony Welch says neither Tribie's claims nor the warnings outlined in the agency's 1994 letter are the subject of any investigation. But HRS still has not reimbursed the League Against AIDS for some $8000 in expenditures, and won't do so until the group submits its overdue audit. "Depending on what the audit turns up, there could be an investigation done by HRS," Welch says. "We don't know until we have all the facts in front of us."

Mireille Tribie also wrote to the Centers for Disease Control last year to outline other employees' complaints regarding a federal contract that provided about $293,000 annually for education and outreach to minority and at-risk women. The complaints involved late payroll checks, denial of health insurance benefits to some staffers, and incorrect use of money earmarked for salaries and other job-related needs. At that time Tribie also repeated her assertions that the board of directors wasn't functioning.

Late last year, after the board hadn't met in six months, Laureano-Vega informed several members that because they had failed to complete the necessary paperwork, they were no longer considered board members. In early 1995, three additional members resigned, citing philosophical differences with Laureano-Vega over "the role of a nonprofit agency," as one member put it.

The CDC is looking into the matter.
"We have a project officer who is working with the league who will make a determination as to whether there are areas of misunderstandings or miscommunication," says CDC spokeswoman Mary Willingham. "They have to be a functioning nonprofit organization for us to work with them. If they're having bookkeeping problems, that is CDC's concern. If their board of directors is not functioning, it means the organization is flailing, and we'd have concerns."

Elaine Abreu only recently joined the board of directors of the League Against AIDS. But she says she has been involved with the group since its inception, and she argues that it has overcome any problems concerning its board of directors. "Up to this point, La Liga has had a very wimpy board A this was our main problem," Abreu concedes. "But I think now the board is going to be very strong, and you will see some changes."

Change is sorely needed, according to two recent studies published by Behavioral Science Research, a Coral Gables company hired by the county to evaluate the 41 local providers who receive federal AIDS funding through Metro-Dade. On the basis of telephone interviews with 389 clients, BSR found that La Liga ranked last in overall satisfaction, with a 65 percent positive rating. (The top provider, by comparison, rated 96 percent.) In evaluating the providers using twenty guidelines established for case management, the league's 72 percent rate of compliance ranked far below the average of 90 percent.

The study results elicit more finger-pointing between league co-founders Tribie and Laureano-Vega. Tribie was director of the organization's client services division until her dismissal; her soon-to-be ex-husband asserts she must shoulder responsibility for the dismal evaluations. Calling the executive director "an absolute dictator," Tribie protests that she worked only part-time at the league and that Laureano-Vega personally controlled every aspect of operations.

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