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AIDS Group’s Retaliation Claim Deemed Political

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Questioning why the AIDS Healthcare Foundation would sue Los Angeles County officials with whom it had tangled politically, a federal judge saw no retaliatory motivation behind an audit.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation has contracted with the county since the late 1990s to provide health care services using federal funds provided under the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency Act.

The county estimates that it will pay the foundation another $11.4 million over the next year under nine of those contracts, the court noted.

In a 2012 lawsuit , the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and its president Michael Weinstein claimed that Los Angeles County had audited it, and made a resulting demand for $1.7 million, in retaliation for its advocacy of a law requiring condoms in the porn industry.

The foundation also accused the county of misusing federal funds meant for HIV/AIDS patients. It said officials turned on the nonprofit after it won a judgment to invalidate $75 million no-bid contract with private pharmacy administrator, Ramsell.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson nevertheless granted the county summary judgment on the retaliation claims.

"Rather than a sincere attempt to vindicate their First Amendment rights, the court fears that plaintiffs instituted this action in an effort to obtain a tactical advantage in their ongoing political battles with defendants," Anderson wrote on Feb. 10.

In a footnote, the court shined a light on Weinstein's email to a foundation employee, close to month before the foundation sued the county.

In the email, Weinstein name-checked county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a defendant in the foundation's lawsuit, alongside county officials Jonathan Fielding and Gloria Molina.

"It is time to take the gloves off," the email states. "We need to go after Zev [Yaroslavsky] directly and hard," Weinstein allegedly wrote. "He is the real power behind our problems with the County on porn, the audit and fee-for-service. Plus he is a lame duck and an arrogant jerk. His Berman-Waxman power base is dead and he and others need to be taught a lesson. The voters are with us."

Later, the email states: "The next phase is to call for [Jonathan] Fielding and Mario [Perez] to step down. This needs to be coordinated with our legal strategy. I want to go to court much sooner than later. I am tired of us being on defense. We have little to lose considering how unreasonable they have been."

The court dismissed the foundation's claims against Yaroslavsky, Fielding and Molina in June 2013.

A 2009 audit found the foundation had billed the county for living costs, salaries and other expenses that could have come from other funding sources.

Judge Anderson found "no evidence" in his latest order, however, that the county's 2009 audit, and resulting demand for $1.7 million, aimed to punish the foundation as it fought with officials over billing and patient issues.

"To the extent that some of plaintiffs' many public statements and actions may have coincided with these asserted adverse actions, the court concludes that the undisputed facts establish that defendants had legitimate administrative reasons for taking each of their actions that outweigh AHF's free speech interests and defendants would have taken the same actions in the absence of AHF's expressive conduct," Anderson wrote, abbreviating AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Yaroslavsky told Los Angeles Times the order was a "complete vindication" and called Weinstein a "thug."

"Contrary to some high-minded First Amendment motivation, he's shown to be a thug," Yaroslavsky reportedly said of the foundation's president. "He's used his nonprofit organization in a crass and bullying political way to get his way, which is to avoid being held accountable."

Weinstein defended the nonprofit in an interview with the Times. He said the foundation planned to appeal the ruling and pursue similar claims made in state court last year.

"We would not have gotten to where we are today if we hadn't fought like hell on behalf of our clients and our mission," he said.

Weinstein hit back at Yaroslavsky.

"Anyone who attends virtually any Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting knows who the thug is," he said, according to the Times.

County voters approved Measure B, the Safer Sex in Adult Industry Act, in the November 2012 general election. The law requires porn actors to wear condoms while producers must take blood-borne pathogen training to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation was the official advocate of the ballot measure. Last year the foundation intervened in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, which it claims the county does not want to enforce.

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