Baltimore health commissioner Peter Beilenson has asked the FBI to investigate the city's Health Education Resource Organization and the group's executive director over the possibility that thousands of federal AIDS dollars may have been misused, the Baltimore Sun reports. Leonardo Ortega has been accused by city health officials of using HERO funds to hire a personal trainer and of giving himself thousands of dollars in bonuses. HERO's board of directors earlier this month began an internal investigation. The alleged misuse of funds was brought to light by former HERO deputy director Indira Kotval, who was fired from the organization after she wrote a report to the agency's board about her concerns involving Ortega's actions and another report in which she questioned what she called his frequent absences from the organization during the past six months. Ortega's assistant also quit her job and told the HERO staff members of similar concerns about her former boss.
Organization records examined by Kotval showed that Ortega had hired a personal trainer with organization funds and recorded the expense as "community relations," she says. She also says she discovered that Ortega gave himself numerous bonuses of up to $3,000 each between November 2003 and January 2004. Kotval also claims she saw travel expenses submitted by Ortega for times when the director of the agency was not traveling on HERO business.
HERO's treasurer, Lataysheia Lance, last week issued a report suggesting that Ortega "did nothing wrong" by giving himself bonuses and submitting travel expenses for reimbursement, the Sun reports. "In our opinion, there were no improprieties on the part of the executive director," according to the report. Ortega, who receives an annual salary of $122,000, can receive up to $16,000 in additional bonuses this year, according to his contract. The treasurer's report also says a "wellness" package allows him to bill the agency for the cost of a personal trainer. But some HERO board members say Ortega has not yet been cleared of wrongdoing. Board member Lou Curran told the Sun that "statements that [Ortega] has been cleared of all wrongdoing are misleading and unauthorized. They're premature."
Beilenson told the Sun that he has requested the FBI to investigate because HERO receives about $1.4 million each year in federal Ryan White AIDS funding to provide services to about 3,500 HIV-positive people in Baltimore. He met with FBI investigators on Friday. The health department, which administers the federal Ryan White money in the city, says it will continue to fund HERO during the investigation but notes that it will be closely watching how the agency uses the federal dollars. HERO and Ortega also are being investigated by the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations over the alleged misuse of agency funds.