County Removes 7-Year Chief of AIDS Program

Times Staff Writer

Health officials said Monday that the embattled head of Los Angeles County's AIDS program will no longer run the office, which doles out $82.5 million a year in government funding to community prevention and treatment programs.

Department of Health Services officials declined to explain the removal of Charles L. "Chuck" Henry as director of the Office of AIDS Programs and Policy, a position he held for seven years.

Officials notified Henry's co-workers in a letter Friday that they were searching for a replacement to run the office but did not elaborate. Henry remains a county employee but his new role has yet to be determined, they said. Henry's attorney said his client had not been told why he was no longer director.

John F. Schunhoff, chief of operations at the public health agency and Henry's supervisor, acknowledged that Henry's departure came after a county investigation was completed last week into his role as a fundraiser for Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa's mayoral campaign.

Schunhoff declined to make the results public, but a preliminary investigation two months ago found that Henry had solicited campaign contributions for Villaraigosa from community groups that receive funds from Henry's office.

County investigators also discovered a fundraising flier for a Villaraigosa event on Henry's office computer, according to a March 7 memo from the top attorney to the county Board of Supervisors. County officials are prohibited from campaigning at work or using county resources to do so.

Henry's attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said neither he nor Henry had been given the results of the county's investigation. He said that Henry had done nothing wrong in working for Villaraigosa's campaign.

"Everything he did was open, obvious and above board," McKesson said. "He built a brick wall between his position in the county and his volunteer efforts for Villaraigosa."

Henry was hired in 1998 amid growing accusations of mismanagement at the AIDS office, which county auditors had long criticized for failing to adequately monitor contracts worth millions of dollars.

As director, Henry was a polarizing figure in the county's tight-knit but often fractious world of HIV and AIDS treatment providers. Some lauded his abilities to increase the amount of money the county received in state and federal grants, which rose by nearly 25% under his watch. Others accused him of favoritism in the way his office distributed those funds.

One of Henry's most vocal critics was Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation Inc., itself the subject of a critical county audit released Monday.

Auditors accused the nonprofit organization of overcharging the county $348,000 for services provided to AIDS patients at the group's Carl Bean House hospice in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. Health officials said they intend to ask Weinstein to reimburse the county.

Weinstein sharply disputed the audit's findings, saying that the county had long accepted his agency's billing practices. He accused Henry of prompting the audit in retaliation for Weinstein's outspoken criticism of him and said he would fight any attempt to force him to return the money.

"There's no question that we spent the money we got in caring for those patients," Weinstein said.

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