Arkansas Health Department Begins Investigation of ‘Potentially’ Misused Funds in HIV/AIDS Division
The Arkansas Department of Health has contacted state and federal law enforcement and has begun investigating "questionable money transfers" within its HIV/AIDS division that could total $44,000, health department attorneys said Tuesday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. The investigation is focused on a travel reimbursement account between the health department and the not-for-profit Fort Smith Fights AIDS -- which operates under a state grant to provide services for HIV-positive people -- and a transfer of funds that may not have been properly documented, according to the health department. The travel account was created to accelerate the department's travel expense payments, according to FSFA Director Jay Burk. Under the travel account arrangement, case workers submitted reimbursement requests to FSFA, which would reimburse them and then bill the state for the payments. However, the investigation has revealed "troubling things" about the account, Robert Brech, a health department attorney, said. The account register shows that state health department employees' travel expenses also were being reimbursed through FSFA. "It is irregular for [state] colleagues to get reimbursement from a grantee. That's not the normal situation," Brech said. For example, Lola Thrower, who resigned as HIV services program administrator July 30, was reimbursed for more than $11,000 in travel expenses and the account register shows two payments of $8,700 and $3,300 to her husband's company, B'MON, for services for Black HIV Awareness Week. Such arrangements "looked like a way to get around state policies," according to health department officials. However, Burk said that Thrower's reimbursement amount "didn't seem excessive, considering the in-state and conference travel she was required to do," adding that he "never questioned the reimbursement requests he received," the Democrat-Gazette reports.
Following "questions raised by the investigation" last week, the health department reassigned two high-ranking HIV/AIDS division employees, Dr. Kaleem Sayyed -- Thrower's former supervisor -- and Merry Howe, to other positions in the division. Sayyed's new position resulted in an 8% salary reduction; Howe's salary remained the same. The department did not disclose the reasons behind either reassignment. Sayyed said that he did not suggest that Thrower resign and he never received complaints that she had mismanaged funds, the Democrat-Gazette reports. The health department has also begun an independent audit of contracts within the HIV/AIDS division. The investigation comes amid budget shortfalls that led the health department to lay off nurses and nurses' aides and eliminate vacant positions in local health care units. Further, the Arkansas AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive people, has instituted a waiting list. "The federal funding that comes into Arkansas is the lifeline for so many people living with HIV and AIDS in Arkansas," Eric Camp -- public policy director for Positive Voices, a Little Rock, Ark.-based not-for-profit organization for HIV-positive people -- said, adding, "It would be shocking if any of these dollars have been misused" (Smith, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 9/15).