Clinic at Death's Door

With a local Democratic Party official at the helm, an AIDS agency nears collapse

County officials cited AVES for failing to submit a required financial audit, filing contractor expense reports riddled with errors, and failing to implement programs for which the agency had been funded.

Richoux warns that if AVES is not in compliance by August 1, contracts totaling more than $1 million will be terminated and the funds redistributed to other AIDS providers. That would constitute a death certificate for AVES.

Asked whether he's been able to discuss the problems with Sanchez, Richoux replies, "It's very hard to track him down. He's always out of town."

Clinic chief Venator cleared out of his office last week.
Deron Neblett
Clinic chief Venator cleared out of his office last week.
Sanchez, a high-profile Democrat, has been hard to find as AVES director.
Sanchez, a high-profile Democrat, has been hard to find as AVES director.

Attendees at the annual Democratic Johnson-Rayburn dinner and party pep rally at the Westin Oaks Galleria last month had no trouble finding Francisco Sanchez. In front of a crowd of hundreds, there he was -- spotlighted at the podium introducing former Texas governor Mark White.

The thin, bespectacled South Houston resident is considered an up-and-comer in party circles, a future candidate deserving of greater responsibilities. He heads a consulting firm, the Sanchez Group, with an office in southwest Houston. People in his position generally court attention and publicity, rather than hide from it behind closed doors and phone-answering machines.

That was the same impression Angela Mora had as she prepared to leave AVES behind and head for California last August. Mora has since come to regard her decision as a major blunder.

"I think the mistake was that he has not had board support," Mora says, engaging in some Monday-morning quarterbacking. "The board should have been involved and micromanaged until they found a replacement, but I don't think the board was responsible enough to do that."

As a consequence, Mora says, the agency's daily billing requirements turned into a financial nightmare. AVES receives AIDS program funding allocations, but does not get the actual money. Instead, agencies for the county and city pay the AVES bills based on expense vouchers submitted by AVES. If the expenses are not filed in a timely and accurate manner, vendors go unpaid and programs quickly become paralyzed.

"I don't think there's any wrongdoing on [Sanchez's] part other than mismanagement," speculates Mora. "Being on top of billing is critical for the agency. But if you don't have a good manager, then he doesn't know what he's doing."

The seven-member AVES board has been anything but strong in recent months, says Venator. Meetings have been regularly attended by only two members other than Sanchez, lawyer and board secretary Michael Whitmire and treasurer John Gonzalez, a Wells Fargo Bank financial officer. Neither returned calls from The Insider. Schrader, who resigned from the board several months ago, could not be reached for comment.

Mary Champion Closner, a probation officer and the board's parliamentarian, says she has been inactive much of the last year with an injury. And after Mora left, she says, she gave notice she didn't want to be on the board.

"I got letters of concern from the employees, and I tried to get ahold of the chairman of the board," says Closner. She says she was told AVES did not have a contact number for Sanchez. Aside from one abortive attempt to set up a meeting with him, Closner says, she had no further contact with the agency.

When The Insider contacted county HIV project coordinator Richoux, he was unaware that the clinic director and doctor had resigned. Richoux is hopeful that if AVES contracts are withdrawn, replacement agencies can quickly be found to fill the void.

Angela Mora is not so sure. She says the agency she built is one of a kind and cannot be replaced so easily.

"The community is the one that's going to end up losing," laments Mora. "I don't think we'll see another AVES in the years to come."

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