Local AIDS charities ditch the walk for dinner and dessert, and leave J.D. Hayworth behind

In retrospect, it wasn't exactly a brilliant move for an AIDS charity to bring on arch-conservative Congressman J.D. Hayworth as its partner.

Hayworth, after all, has repeatedly refused to sponsor legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2001, he voted to bar the District of Columbia from using local funds to create a domestic partner registry. On a scale of 0 to 100, the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay political organization, has scored him at exactly 0 -- for six consecutive years.

But last January, one of the Valley's largest AIDS service organizations, AIDS Project Arizona, decided Hayworth was their guy. The agency, better known as APAZ, announced the congressman would co-chair a year-long awareness campaign, "Wear With Care," designed to promote a resurgence of red-ribbon-wearing.

Agencies like AGAPE -- which use volunteers like Tommy Tharp to  deliver food to AIDS patients --  used to count on AIDS Walk.
Peter Scanlon
Agencies like AGAPE -- which use volunteers like Tommy Tharp to deliver food to AIDS patients -- used to count on AIDS Walk.
AGAPE network volunteers Lloyde Malone (center) and Tommy Tharp (left) load Malone's cart with groceries while AGAPE's Bonnie Heare (far right) gets a hug from volunteer Patricia Glover.
Peter Scanlon
AGAPE network volunteers Lloyde Malone (center) and Tommy Tharp (left) load Malone's cart with groceries while AGAPE's Bonnie Heare (far right) gets a hug from volunteer Patricia Glover.

Sure, the official word is that AIDS isn't a gay disease. Remember Ryan White, that kid who got AIDS from a blood transfusion? And what about Magic Johnson?

Political correctness aside, however, gay men still account for most of this country's AIDS casualties. And the gay community has devoted significant resources to fighting the disease here, as in other places. Many local AIDS service organizations, including the agency that eventually became AIDS Project Arizona, were started by gay men.

So when APAZ announced that Hayworth would co-chair its new awareness campaign, Echo magazine, a local gay publication, called the selection "insensitive at best, but appalling to most."

And Hayworth hardly helped his cause by telling Echo that he'd committed to the campaign after meeting a guy who'd gotten AIDS from, yes, a blood transfusion. He wouldn't say whether he'd changed his stance on gay rights, though his subsequent vote for a constitutional ban on gay marriage makes it pretty clear that he had not. (His office didn't return calls for comment.)

Enlisting Hayworth's support, practically everyone agrees, was the beginning of the end for APAZ. The agency officially collapsed 10 months later, taking the AIDS community's biggest fund raiser with it.

The effect on the larger community -- nearly two dozen local nonprofit groups that serve an estimated 7,000 people with HIV or AIDS -- was devastating. Without APAZ, there were both more needs and less money to meet them.

But in the long run, hitting rock bottom may not have been entirely bad.

The AIDS service community in metropolitan Phoenix has long been plagued by infighting and dissension. So it's remarkable that, instead of going separate ways, 13 groups have joined up to host a new fund raiser this November.

Even more remarkable: They're doing it with a generosity of spirit that seemed hitherto unimaginable.

"I have never seen the community pull together like this," says Maclovia Zepeda, director of HIV/AIDS services for Chicanos por la Causa. "It's something different than anything that's ever happened before.

"It's amazing."

What happened last year was amazing in an entirely different way.

Like many AIDS-related agencies, APAZ relied heavily on federal grants, administered by Maricopa County. County audits in February and March found serious deficiencies in the agency's work, and the county withheld payment until they could be fixed.

Staffers fled. Board members quit.

Thanks to the controversy following Hayworth's selection, APAZ had only a crumbling base of community support to fall back on.

"The addition of Congressman Hayworth to the mix made a lot of people second-guess their involvement," says Matt Heil, who covered the story for Echo and is now an aide to Councilman Tom Simplot. "Even though AIDS is not a gay disease, gay people are still the main ones fighting it.

"And when a guy like that partners with someone like [APAZ], you're going to have a problem."

Desperate for money, APAZ turned to AIDS Walk.

For more than a decade, AIDS Walk was the premier AIDS fund raiser. It was hugely symbolic -- some years, more than 22,000 walkers made the trek down Central Avenue -- and highly profitable. Even in recent years, when receipts were falling, the walk earned more than $200,000, after expenses.

Throughout the 1990s, APAZ ran the AIDS Walk, took the biggest cut, and then doled out cash to other AIDS service agencies.

There were always complaints about how the money was divided. By 2000, they'd grown loud enough that APAZ agreed to spin off the Walk as its own 501(c)3. It still worked out of APAZ's office complex, but had its own board and executive director.

But APAZ controlled half that board, says Robert Dorfman, who was the Walk's director for two years. And so, when APAZ was reaching the height of its financial strain in April 2004, the Walk's board agreed to again merge with APAZ.

"At that point," recalls Dorfman, "I lost any control of the financials. I was completely impotent."

Dorfman quit in August. Two months later, APAZ closed its doors and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The collapse was so sudden that five file cabinets with confidential patient information ended up for sale at the agency's court-ordered auction of assets. It fell to Maricopa County to retrieve the files at the last minute, according to county records.

And, as APAZ board members admitted, rather than safeguarding the donations earmarked for the Walk, the agency had used the dough to make payroll one last time.

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