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HIV group uses public money for souped-up Hummer
by Erica Demarest

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A Chicago HIV-awareness not-for-profit initially spent than $45,000 of public money to fund a tricked-out Hummer, according to new reports from the Chicago Sun-Times.

The pre-owned 2003 Hummer, which was purchased in July 2004 for $45,196, was used to promote HIV awareness in low-income Black neighborhoods. The red SUV had a custom paint job, game consoles, an on-board TV and chrome rims. It distributed educational information and provided free on-site HIV tests.

Some questioned how Working for Togetherness, the now-defunct NGO ( non-governmental organization ) that operated the Hummer, could afford such a vehicle. Its CEO, Clifford Armstead, insisted he and his wife used personal funds for its purchase.

It was revealed, however, following an Illinois Department of Public Health investigation that Working for Togetherness had in fact used state funds on the Hummer.

In an internal email obtained by the Sun-Times through Freedom of Information Act requests, Center for Minority Health Services Chief Doris Turner wrote: "Working for Togetherness did not properly request the automobile purchase as part of their budget process."

The health department—then headed by Dr. Eric Whitaker, one of President Obama's close friends—decided to continue funding Working for Togetherness despite the misinformation. The NGO was required to return $22,500, or about half the cost of the vehicle, to the state. The organization complied.

While some have suggested the Illinois Department of Public Health did not properly monitor the organizations it funded, Whitaker's spokeswoman, Marj Halperin, told Windy City Times the fact the department noticed and investigated the Hummer purchase proves otherwise.

"You don't follow them around when they write a check," Halperin said, "but you do follow up when they make purchases and monitor what they're doing. That's what was happening."

Halperin said the state opted to split the cost of the Hummer because the vehicle successfully reached populations that were hard to reach otherwise. " [ State officials ] weren't comfortable with spending as much money on the vehicle as had been spent, so they negotiated a smaller price," she said.

In a letter to the Sun-Times dated Sept. 22, Illinois public health officials, including Sidney Thomas and Cook County Dept. of Public Health COO Stephen Martin, praised Whitaker's choice to fund Working for Togetherness.

"His aggressive response shifted resources where they were needed most. This included such innovative—and unorthodox—strategies as a tricked-out Hummer that provided young African-American men, who are most at risk, with on-the-spot HIV testing and treatment referrals in a way that made accessing these services attractive and inviting. The CDC estimates that preventing a single case of HIV may save as much as $300,000 in societal costs—recouping many times the cost of the SUV."

From 2005-2010, Working for Togetherness received $915,287 in AIDS-awareness money from the city of Chicago. The not-for-profit has since gone out of business, and Armstead has died.

The Hummer was seriously damaged in a January 2009 car crash and sold for salvage. It's not clear what became of proceeds from the sale.

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