When critics dismiss him as a kook, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), the Republican leading the House investigation into the Democratic fundraising scandal, usually says his crusades reflect the interests of voters back home. But his extremist crusade against the spread of AIDS reflects an interest even closer to Burton -- his own pocketbook.
Burton has proposed mandatory AIDS testing for every American citizen and, this year, he called for the death penalty for anyone who knowingly transmits HIV. He is reportedly so afraid of catching the disease that he refuses to order soup in a restaurant.
He also was an early investor in Ribi ImmunoChem, a Montana-based biotechnology company that makes adjuvants, which stimulate a body's immunity. In 1987, Ribi was listed by Wall Street analysts as one of the players in the growing AIDS-related industry. That year, Burton acquired Ribi stock worth up to $5,000 (Congress members don't have to disclose the exact amount of their stock purchases).
In 1988, Ribi announced its product might be a building block for an AIDS vaccine, and in 1993, the National Institutes of Health included Ribi adjuvants in studies on humans that attempted to find a vaccine. That year, Burton proposed a resolution for additional money to help fund further AIDS studies.
Betting on the discovery of an AIDS vaccine is a risky investment, says Jim Bellessa, a securities analyst with D.A. Davidson & Co. But if Ribi adjuvants work in the NIH vaccine studies, he says it could be "humongous for the company."
In 1994, when the company's revenues dropped, the value of Burton's investment dropped below $1,000. But in March 1995, Burton acquired stock worth $5,000 in HemoCleanse, which is in the testing phase for a device that might kill the AIDS virus by heating blood. Meanwhile, Burton is a co-sponsor of a bill to fast-track Food and Drug Administration approval of medical devices that offer "breakthrough technologies."
Burton is already under a Justice Department probe for reported influence peddling to Pakistan. But he doesn't have to worry about his stocks: Congress members are not required to recuse themselves from legislation or subcommittees that could affect their stock holdings.