A Colorado advisory board responsible for doling out millions of dollars in state grants to county-level HIV and AIDS programs regularly violates state open meetings laws and allows members who are affiliated with grant-seeking organizations to help decide whether they get funding.
The revelations were part of a harsh state audit critical of Colorado’s HIV and AIDS Prevention Grant Program run by the department of health.
It found that the seven-member advisory committee that recommends grants to myriad AIDS groups throughout the state runs meetings that are disorganized and plagued with absenteeism and vacancies.
Members often make decisions about grant applications over email without giving proper public notice or keeping minutes, both of which violate of Colorado’s Sunshine Law. Auditors also found instances in which no minutes were kept during in-person meetings, meaning there’s no official record of what happened.
Most troubling was that a committee member who admitted to having some personal or professional relationship with organizations seeking funding was still allowed to make recommendations as to whether those organizations were approved.
“Conflict-of-interest forms for 22 grant applications were not on file for one Advisory Committee member,” the audit noted. “Additionally, in nine cases, an Advisory Committee member reviewed and scored a grant application despite the member’s having disclosed some type of personal or professional relationship, affiliation, or interest with the applicant.”
Carol Helwig, one of the committee members, called it “an egregious oversight.”
“It should be cautioned against in the future,” she told The Daily Caller News Foundation, adding that she’d never reviewed an application in which she had a conflict of interest. “It’s something that should definitely not be happening and I would hope that the section would put in safeguards so that it doesn’t happen again going forward.”
Since its inception in 2006, the program has awarded $11.4 million in grants aimed at HIV/AIDS prevention, outreach, counseling and education. The money comes from Colorado’s cut of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.
But the audit also found issues with how the funds are distributed around the state. According to the Colorado statute governing the program, funds are to be spent on programs throughout the state. But although seven of the top 10 counties with the highest HIV case rates are rural, most of the money is given to programs in urban counties.
“We estimated that projects covering urban counties account for approximately $1.1 million (65 percent) of the total $1.7 million awarded in the current grant cycle,” the audit said. “Projects covering rural counties account for the remaining $0.6 million (35 percent).”
The audit found that two of five rural counties that received no funding coverage for the 2013-2015 funding cycle had higher HIV case rates than two urban counties that had eight funded projects between them. A “case rate” is the calculation of new HIV cases per 100,000 people.
In an illustration of the disorganization noted in the audit, the list of advisory committee members on the department of health’s website is outdated and doesn’t reflect two vacancies. Some, therefore, couldn’t be contacted and others didn’t return phone calls. One member who was contacted but who declined to comment couldn’t remember the name of the current chairman.
Helwig said there is room for improvement in the program.
“I think that the both the board and the [health department staff] have the best interests of the community as an intention,” she said. “Although things have been bumpy and this audit obviously turned out a bunch of harsh criticisms — definitely these things that have been pointed out, if they did turn out that way, I find them to be egregious and need to be remedied — but I think that no one is necessarily doing any of it maliciously or with bad intent.”
“I think that everyone, the board and the state health department, they want to do a good job,” she said.
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