One Million for You Group, One Million for My Group

Conflict-of-interest allegations force a recount in the divvying-up of federal AIDS funding

When the City of Miami's Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA) advisory board designated the recipients of millions of dollars in federal AIDS funding earlier this past month, it should have prompted a sigh of relief among AIDS activists countywide. After all, internecine bickering had delayed this crucial step in handing out the money for eight months. But in dividing $3.6 million among the HIV/AIDS Planning and Management Organization, the Metro-Dade County Human Resource Department Office of Community Services, the Economic Opportunity Family Health Center, and the Christian Community Service Agency, the twelve-member HOPWA board managed to spark even more controversy: Representatives from each of those four organizations happen to be members of the advisory board.

After a Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued in February, interested organizations had submitted 41 applications to the HOPWA board. Eliminating submissions that lacked the necessary qualifications, board members winnowed the proposals to twelve, and at a March 2 meeting, they voted to forward applications from four groups to the Miami City Commission for final approval.

Instead, city officials threw out the recommendations two weeks ago, in response to a complaint lodged by the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition, one of the organizations whose proposals were rejected, claimed that the selection process was tainted by conflicts of interest, in violation of state and federal regulations. The process will now begin all over again, with new applications due this Monday, April 17. These will be evaluated by a separate selection committee, none of whose members have applied for funding.

Meanwhile, not one penny of the $5.2 million in federal HOPWA money has been turned over to any social service organizations. (The outstanding $1.6 million involved applications that were disqualified; those were to have been reid late last month but will now be part of the new process.)

The snafu has infuriated some local AIDS activists, because the money now will take even longer to reach its intended beneficiaries, hundreds of whom are waiting for rental assistance or related services, and at least some of whom will die before the money is released.

"Any decision to set aside the contracts for HOPWA services will be an intolerable act against those suffering from the ravages of this horrible disease," Charles Hutchison, president of the board of directors of the advocacy group People With AIDS Coalition, wrote in a March 17 letter to Assistant City Manager Herbert Bailey, whose Department of Development and Housing Conservation oversees the HOPWA advisory board.

HOPWA board co-chairman Gene Suarez says members went out of their way to be fair and unbiased, and he points out that people whose groups had applied for funding recused themselves when their own organization's application came up for a vote. (The entire board, however, set the criteria for proposals and evaluated all of them.) "It really wasn't a conflict of interest," Suarez asserts. "They were mainly opposed to the fact that we became friendly with so many people who would be applying for money, and they thought this would be an advantage. It's nonsense, really."

But other HOPWA board members criticize the city for its lack of legal guidance in the selection process. "The body didn't receive proper counsel from the city with respect to issues of conflict of interest," says co-chairman Tim Koontz, an AIDS activist who doesn't represent any organization that applied for HOPWA money. Though he is critical of the action taken by the Coalition for the Homeless, he concedes that "we probably would have addressed that maybe a little bit better if we had it to do over again."

For months before the March 2 vote, distribution of the HOPWA money had been delayed by a dispute between the board A which comprises representatives of governmental and nonprofit organizations, as well as several people with AIDS A and the city regarding the types of projects that should receive priority. Board members favored shorter-term services such as assistance with rent, utilities, and transportation, while the city wanted more resources to go toward building housing units. (The dispute was the subject of "No Bucks for Beds," a story in the October 20, 1994, issue of New Times.)

Attorney Gale D. Lucy, director of Housing Policy and Programs for the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, regrets the additional delay that has resulted from the group's challenge, but says it is a necessary evil. "We're adding a month [to the funding process]," acknowledges Lucy, who formerly handled housing and homeless-related cases for Legal Services of Greater Miami. "But we're trying to make the process clean. They were in conflict with federal and state laws and regulations, the way they were sitting on the board and awarding money to themselves." Lucy was the first to question the results of the selection process; the day after the HOPWA board designated its recipients, she sent a letter of complaint to Assistant City Attorney Linda Kelly Kearson.

In February, in a letter to a representative of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Jacksonville, Kearson had raised the issue of possible conflicts of interest on the part of people with AIDS who sat on the advisory board and who might benefit from the board's decisions. The HUD representative, Sybil K. Grissett, says she told Kearson that people with AIDS posed no threat of a conflict of interest. But Grissett says she knew nothing about the other conflict-of-interest issue -- whether it was proper for officials from groups applying for funding to take part in the selection process -- until Kearson received Lucy's letter. "That would be a problem," Grissett says. (Kearson was out of town and could not be reached for comment for this story.)

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