The Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing federal funding for more than a dozen HIV/AIDS organizations that participated in a demonstration against HHS secretary Tommy Thompson in July at the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, The Washington Post reports. Activists protested the Bush administration's low funding of international AIDS programs during Thompson's speech at the conference, completely drowning out his talk. The audit was requested by 12 congressional Republicans upset over the protest and angry that the conference did not have a greater emphasis on religious themes.
In a letter sent to Thompson after the conference concluded, 12 Republican House members requested that HHS account for all federal dollars spent to support the international gathering and the U.S. groups that attended. They also wrote that they were "very disappointed by the rude reception" Thompson received. The same day the letter was sent, House Government Reform subcommittee staff member Roland Foster sent an E-mail message to an employee in the HHS legislative affairs office specifically asking how much funding had been received by 12 U.S. agencies that participated in the Thompson protest. Less than a week later, Foster expanded that list to 16 groups, including Gay Men's Health Crisis, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, and the Treatment Action Group.
AIDS activists say the audits are a deliberate attempt by the government to punish the protesters and to silence criticism of the Bush administration's HIV/AIDS policies. "Anybody who hears what's happened is going to think twice about signing another flier or planning another demonstration," said Mark Harrington, executive director of the Treatment Action Group.
Deputy HHS secretary Claude Allen said the audits are not a "witch-hunt," that the audit request is routine, and that it is unclear what use, if any, will be made of the audit information. But he added that "Congress is watching what we do" and that protesters should "think twice before preventing a Cabinet-level official from bringing a message of hope to an international forum."