By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Michael Venator slumped in a chair in his AVES clinic director's office in a medical high-rise just off the Southwest Freeway at Weslayan. Outside his door, staffers bustled about serving the mostly indigent Hispanic patients infected with HIV.
In March 1999 he helped launch the Amigos Volunteers in Education and Service clinic, the only center in Houston focusing on Hispanic and Latino AIDS patients -- particularly pregnant mothers.
"I've spent sometimes 16-hour days here, starting from patient one," Venator recalled. The 39-year-old clinic chief is proud of the center's accomplishments, including the delivery of 32 healthy, HIV-negative newborns, the children of clinic patients who are HIV-positive.
However, the strides made by his clinic only seemed to make Venator sadder on this day. The voice of the lanky, short-haired Venator was halting and softened by the knowledge that these were his final hours on the job. Weeks earlier, he had submitted his resignation.
"We put together one of the best medical teams I've ever worked with, and we're breaking up now. It's like the end of a relationship."
Patients remained unaware that they could be searching elsewhere for treatment in a matter of weeks. "They don't know yet," said Venator somberly. "This is happening pretty rapidly."
The 11-year veteran of work in AIDS treatment programs said he's getting out of that field and is headed to a secure post at Baylor. There, the checks don't bounce and top administrators don't lock themselves incommunicado in their offices.
"We've fought as much as we can," concluded Venator. He wasn't talking about the long, all-too-familiar struggle to defeat the ravages of the AIDS virus.
"We're essentially fighting him."
"Him" is 29-year-old Francisco Sanchez, the interim executive director of nonprofit AVES. Sanchez, a former aide to a state representative, has gone on to become secretary of the Harris County Democratic Party. Sanchez is touted in party circles as a rising political star, even as AVES plunges into chaos under his supervision.
Founded to fight AIDS in Houston's Hispanic community by local HIV service pioneer Angela Mora in 1988, AVES had steadily grown over the years. The nonprofit agency operates the two-year-old clinic along with several educational, counseling and treatment programs combating AIDS.
Nearly 500 patients monthly receive treatment at the clinic. Funded by federal, county and city grants, the overall program budget for this fiscal year is more than $2 million.
Last year Mora departed as executive director to become the HIV patient advocate for the state of California. She thought she had left her creation in good hands by asking Sanchez -- unpaid chairman of the AVES board -- to step in as interim director until board members had time to mount a search and hire an administrator.
"He was very supportive and he was very effective while I was the executive director," remembers Mora, who says Sanchez had been an AVES backer for years.
Since Sanchez took over, according to Venator, the AVES board has given him two pay raises, hiking his salary to $75,000 a year.
Staffers say Sanchez has been difficult to contact, often showing up for brief periods and secluding himself in his office. Both Mora and Venator blame him for allowing the organization to slide into a financial morass.
Repeated Insider calls to Sanchez's number elicited one return message. He explained he was traveling to Mexico for a funeral and would get in touch when he returned. As of press time, Sanchez had not called back.
"The agency is having management problems, and unless there is a change of executive director or a stronger board, the agency is most likely going to go under," says Mora by telephone from California. "It's a shame, because it's one of the most significant Latino agencies in the country and the largest in Texas."
Venator says Sanchez continues to pretend as if nothing's wrong.
"It's just his general lack of action," says Venator with a shake of his head. "For instance, I turned in my notice two and a half weeks ago. He hasn't even acknowledged it. He completely avoids phone calls from staff."
It is no exaggeration to describe AVES as in shambles. Venator says medical suppliers have cut off essential vaccines for AIDS-related illnesses like hepatitis and pneumonia, are demanding payments for back bills, and are threatening lawsuits. According to Venator, staff paychecks have bounced, employee insurance coverage has lapsed, and IRS withholding taxes have gone unpaid.
The clinic's doctor, Shannon Schrader, has given notice that he is resigning. Schrader had already resigned from the AVES board several months earlier, in part, says Venator, because he feared the disastrous state of the agency's finances could ensnare trustees in lawsuits. The head nurse clinician has also left.
A day after the Insider's clinic visit last week, Venator called to report that the building manager had delivered an eviction notice, and the clinic's lab contractor, Labcorp, had discontinued service because of unpaid bills.
Public Health and Environmental Services, the umbrella group that distributes and monitors AIDS funding routed through Harris County, sent Sanchez a notice on April 18 that AVES is "a high risk recipient."
"A high risk organization is one where management practices raise serious questions about its ability to assure proper programmatic use and financial stewardship of contract funds," wrote Patrick Richoux, project coordinator for AIDS services.