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At The CDC: Spending That Could Make You Ill

(CBS)
Sharyl Attkisson is the Capitol Hill Correspondent for CBS News.
Our report tonight on wasteful spending at the Centers for Disease Control should come with a public health alert: "Warning: viewing this story on how the CDC is spending your tax dollars might make you sick."

With CDC asking taxpayers for a billion dollars more to be added to its $10 billion budget, some in Congress are asking tough questions about the agency's spending choices. Senator Tom Coburn, who oversees CDC funding, has produced a detailed investigative report with maddening examples of apparently extravagant spending. They include hundreds of millions of dollars spent on state-of-the-art facilities that are so top-of-the-line, they've won architectural awards... there's the new headquarters, the communications and visitors center, and the employee fitness center. The press person for CDC told me repeatedly that nothing there was "out of the ordinary" in these facilities. But some Americans might see it differently. For example, the massive fitness center rivals the nicest private clubs I've seen. And you really have to wonder who decided it was good idea to equip it with "quiet rooms" complete with "anti-gravity chairs" where stressed out employees can relax and watch a "mood-enhancing light show."

Another sore point for some is all the tax money being spent on things that seem to be pretty far off the beaten path to disease prevention and emergency response.

For example there's the $1.7 million dollars already spent by CDC on a Hollywood liaison to help TV shows and soap operas develop accurate medical plot lines. I'm not kidding. CDC sees this as a great way to reach out to lots of members of the public. But some in Congress say Hollywood can afford to do its own research or, better yet, the script writers could just verify their medical facts when needed by calling the CDC press office.

There are also perceived conflicts of interest examples contained within the Congressional report. The CDC employee who thought up the idea to pay a Hollywood liaison created an office to get it done, then promptly left the CDC to go work for the Hollywood company that gets all the CDC money. One member of Congress told me if things like that were happening in the Defense Department "there would probably be a criminal investigation."

There are also really disheartening examples of how CDC's AIDS and HIV prevention money is sometimes being squandered -- grants being awarded to projects that investigators have found in some cases to have "no objectives," are "not performing," or have been rated as "abysmal." In other cases, grants have gone to community-based groups with very little oversight. The result is tax dollars spent on erotic writing classes, a drag contest, zoo trips for HIV-positive people, a workshop in San Francisco on "how to flirt with greater finesse," a bar night, and a manual on how to throw an alcohol party.

From the Congressional report:
"The CDC-funded STOP AIDS Project (SAP) of San Francisco received nearly $700,000 a year in federal HIV prevention funds from the CDC. SAP published a Winter 1999/2000 resource magazine for black gay and bisexual men of the San Francisco Bay area entitled "Our Love." The magazine, which states that it was funded "with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," includes an article entitled "Party at BJ's," which explains how to have a "house party" and how much alcohol to serve.
THE PARTY AT BJ'S ARTICLE EXPLAINS HOW ALCOHOL HELPS A HOUSE PARTY:
One more thing. It may not be a necessity but it sure helps. And that is alcohol. You don't have to go broke trying to get enough booze for the whole creation to drink, but a selection is a must. Since you have invited people from all of your social circles, you know there will be wine-heads, the beernuts, the cocktail lushes, and a few folks who simply don't touch the stuff. And everyone should have a cup in their hand of something that will hit the spot. Here's what to do. And you may look like a suicidal drunk in the line at the grocery store, but go and buy a little bit of every kind of drink. At least two kinds of wine, red and white. Get at least two kinds of liquors, dark and light (rum and vodka). Have a few beers in the fridge, maybe a 12 pack or two. Have enough juice and soft drinks to use as mixers and to drink straight.
And splurge with a little grenadine and some lime. It doesn't have to be a full bar, but keep smiles on the peoples faces with selection.'
Meantime, after billions of CDC money spent on AIDS/HIV prevention, the infection rate has remained stagnant in the past decade.
The CDC press officer says much of the criticism in the report from Congress is unfair. As far as misspent grant money, the CDC cuts off future funding when inappropriate spending has been uncovered. The new CDC facilities replace dilapidated buildings and allow CDC to make better scientific advances. The fitness center is simply the CDC starting at home with its own employees when it comes to trying to make America healthier. The expansive TV studio at CDC helps the agency reach out to global partners.

There are undoubtedly many dedicated employees at CDC who do terrific work. And they shouldn't be tainted by the allegations of frivolous spending. The CDC has an important role in our society -- one that's expanded with the perpetual threat terror attacks that have medical implications.

But when the CDC comes to Congress with its hand out for a billion extra dollars during a time of limited resources, it's not surprising that some are giving them the third degree. When it comes down to it, if the facilities are winning architectural awards but AIDS rates aren't moving down, the CDC might want to consider an internal exam to see if the agency is really in the best of health.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.