By Larry Margasak
WASHINGTON — The advertisements addressed to gay men were provocative: Learn to write racy stories about your sexual encounters, choose toys "for solo and partner sex" or share tales of erotic experiences.
All of it was done at government expense, in the name of preventing AIDS.
These expenditures — along with other recent allegations of fraud and abuse of federal money to fight AIDS — have upset some AIDS activists and lawmakers.
"The tragic consequences are that people die when they don’t get their vital medical services," said Wayne Turner, spokesman for the AIDS activist group Act Up in Washington. "The days of the AIDS gravy train are numbered."
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has not investigated the explicit ads but said of fraud and abuse in general: "We don’t have money to burn when people are suffering and dying."
After learning of mismanagement of AIDS money, Grassley won a commitment from the Health and Human Services inspector general for increased audits of federal treatment funds.
The sexually provocative prevention programs run by San Francisco AIDS groups are funded in part from the $387.7 million the federal government is spending this year on AIDS prevention.
The government also spends $1.8 billion for medical treatment of low-income victims of AIDS and $257 million for housing for low income and homeless sufferers of the sexually transmitted disease that attacks the body’s immune system.
Allegations of mismanagement or poor administration of the AIDS treatment funds have arisen in the Kansas City area, Indiana and the District of Columbia. The housing assistance program was criticized in Los Angeles. An AIDS clinic operator in Dallas was sentenced to prison for using federal AIDS funds to pay a psychic.
Federal officials who administer the AIDS funds say they rely primarily on state and local governments and — in the case of prevention program content — citizen review boards to ensure the money is spent properly.
But those who run the federally funded workshops on writing sex stories and using sex toys say that was the only way to draw gay men into discussions about AIDS prevention.
"Many who are at risk experience AIDS-prevention burnout," said Brian Byrnes, director of prevention services for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation — the group that conducts the "Hot Writing" workshop.
San Francisco officials, who distribute more than $40 million annually in federal treatment and prevention funds to community AIDS groups, agreed. "If you put out a flier saying, ‘Please come learn how to prevent AIDS,’ nobody shows up," said Steven Tierney, director of HIV prevention for the city.
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