Caring for AIDS patients can be a mission of mercy. For some, it also can be a six-figure proposition.

The top officers of at least nine charitable AIDS organizations - which get $53 million a year from the federal, state or local governments - receive six-figure incomes, according to annual financial disclosure forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service.The salaries have drawn criticism from AIDS activists as well as Rep. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who also is a physician.

"The money isn't going to the people who need it," said Coburn, who has treated patients with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. "I'm not against anybody making money, but if you're in a charity organization where it's your purpose to help people, you shouldn't be earning two or three or even eight or nine times the national average."

Coburn, who circulated a letter on the issue among his colleagues, spoke out on the House floor Wednesday. "At a time when direct services and medically necessary care is being severely curtailed, many AIDS charity executives have put lining their own pockets above saving lives," he said.

The directors of the nine AIDS organizations are in charge of their operations, budgets and staff.

At the top of the list: Jerome Radwin, chief executive officer of the New York City-based American Foundation for AIDS Research, better known as AmFAR, who was paid $191,729 in 1996. AmFAR officials did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Another New York City organization, the Gay Men's Health Crisis, had two employees who earned more than the governor of New York did in 1995. The group's executive director, Mark Robinson, was paid $144,782, and its deputy executive director for development, Addie Guttag, got $139,337. Gov. George Pataki's salary is $130,000. The group also did not return a phone call for comment.

On the West Coast, the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foun-da-tion had at least six employees with salaries exceeding $100,000 in 1996 - five physicians paid between $127,375 and $172,366, and the group's president, Michael Weinstein, who was paid $126,548.

"We're a medical provider, and our top salary earners are doctors," said Cesar Portillo, the organization's director of government affairs. "We provide the highest-quality medical care to people with AIDS. The only way we can do that is to make sure we're competitive in the market in terms of physicians."

In the District of Columbia, the Whitman-Walker Clinic paid its executive director, Jim Graham, $143,690, in 1996. Graham said his salary has increased as the clinic has grown, from a budget of $280,000 and six employees when he first got there 14 years ago to a budget of $21 million and 280 employees today.

Even with that, the clinic spends just 2 percent of its budget on administrative costs, records show.

"It is not a situation where money is being diverted to fat salaries over the back of people who need help," Graham said.

The salaries and other financial information about AIDS organizations nationwide have been posted on the Web by a San Francisco-based advocacy group, the Accountability Project, at http://www.accountabilityproject.com.