State lead­ers: Stop giv­ing can­cer grants

Gov­er­nor, De­whurst and House speaker say trou­bled agency must first get its house in or­der.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Lay­lan Copelin lcopelin@states­man.com

The state’s top lead­er­ship on Wed­nes­day called for Texas’ can­cer-fight­ing agency to stop mak­ing grants un­til it has ad­dressed con­cerns about the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David De­whurst and House Speaker Joe Straus made the re­quest in a let­ter to the Can­cer Preven­tion and Re­search In­sti­tute of Texas, com­monly called CPRIT.

The agency’s top three ex­ec­u­tives have re­signed amid ques­tions over its han­dling of two grant ap­pli­ca­tions — one for a Hous­ton-based in­cu­ba­tor and an­other for a Dal­las biotech startup — that got in­ad­e­quate or no re­view, in pos­si­ble vi­o­la­tion of CPRIT’s rules.

The tiny agency, with a cou­ple of dozen em­ploy­ees, be­came the na­tion’s sec­ond­largest source of can­cer re­search money af­ter Texas vot­ers in 2007 ap­proved $3 bil­lion in bonds to fi­nance a 10-year ef­fort to find cures for var­i­ous can­cers.

The let­ter from Perry, De­whurst and Straus came just weeks af­ter the gov­er­nor ex­pressed sup­port for the agency, show­ing how quickly CPRIT’s cred­i­bil­ity has eroded.

“The mis­sion of de­feat­ing can­cer is too im­por­tant to be de­railed by in­ad­e­quate pro­cesses and a lack of over­sight,” the state lead­ers wrote in their let­ter. “It is im­por­tant that we re­store the con­fi­dence of the Texas tax­pay­ers who ap­proved

this im­por­tant ini­tia­tive be­fore new funds are dis­persed.”

The let­ter specif­i­cally calls on the agency to co­op­er­ate fully with on­go­ing re­views, im­ple­ment rec­om­mended changes, en­act gov­er­nance re­forms and fill key man­age­ment and peer re­view po­si­tions to en­sure that all fu­ture grant re­quests are prop- erly re­viewed and acted upon. It also clar­i­fies the lead­er­ship’s ex­pec­ta­tion that any re­forms should not af­fect cur­rent con­tracts.

The lead­er­ship’s let­ter came just hours af­ter state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, called on the gov­er­nor to put the can­cer agency on his list of emer­gency items for the Leg­is­la­ture to con­sider in the first few weeks of the ses­sion. The Leg­is­la­ture con­venes Jan. 8, but the gov­er­nor pri­or­i­tizes the early agenda for law­mak­ers.

The gov­er­nor will an­nounce his full list of emer­gency items closer to the start of the ses­sion, said Lucy Nashed, a Perry spokes­woman.

Davis said she would file leg­is­la­tion ad­dress­ing the can­cer agency.

“The Can­cer Preven­tion and Re­search In­sti­tute of Texas is cur­rently plagued by ac­cu­sa­tions of crony­ism, con­flicts of in­ter­est, in­sider deals and a lack of trans­parency and accountability to the pub­lic,” Davis said in a news re­lease.

“Th­ese is­sues are un­der­stand­ably tar­nish­ing the pub­lic’s trust in how hun­dreds of mil­lions in voter-ap­proved funds are be­ing man­aged through CPRIT.”

Davis promised to raise ques­tions on the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the agency, par­tic­u­larly whether it should con­tinue giv­ing money to com­pa­nies to com­mer­cial­ize can­cer re­search into prod­ucts and treat­ments. Some ad­vo­cates say the agency’s pri­mary mis­sion should be fund­ing re­search and preven­tion.

Davis said her pro­posed leg­is­la­tion would fo­cus on mak­ing the process more trans­par­ent, in­clud­ing whether a foun­da­tion that doesn’t dis­close its donors should be al­lowed to sub­si­dize the salaries of agency of­fi­cials mak­ing awards.

CPRIT’s prob­lems started this spring when its chief sci­ence of­fi­cer, Al­fred Gil­man, said he would re­sign be­cause of in­ter­fer­ence from the agency’s 11-mem­ber over- sight com­mit­tee, which in­cludes po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees cho­sen by Perry, De­whurst and Straus.

Gil­man said his sci­en­tific com­mit­tee wasn’t al­lowed to re­view an $18 mil­lion grant in­tended for a Hous­ton-based busi­ness in­cu­ba­tor for can­cer­fight­ing com­pa­nies. The grant, which was han­dled by the agency’s com­mer­cial­iza­tion di­vi­sion, was put on hold.

Var­i­ous news re­ports also raised ques­tions about donors to Perry and De­whurst’s cam­paigns be­ing in­vestors in com­pa­nies seek­ing grants from CPRIT.

De­spite those ques­tions, Perry praised the agency’s chair­man, Austin busi­ness­man James Man­sour, as hav­ing done “ex­cep­tional work” at CPRIT’s an­nual meet­ing in Oc­to­ber.

But within days of that meet­ing it was dis­cov­ered that two years ago CPRIT had ap­proved an $11 mil­lion grant to Pelo­ton Ther­a­peu­tics, a Dal­las start-up, with­out any re­view.

Bill Gim­son, the agency’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said the grant ap­pli­ca­tion had fallen through the cracks.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Greg Ab­bott, who sits on the CPRIT board, and the Travis County pros­e­cu­tors are in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

State Au­di­tor John Keel is ex­pected to com­plete an au­dit of the agency and its foun­da­tion by late Jan­uary.

Gov. Rick Perry’s let­ter shows how fast agency’s cred­i­bil­ity has eroded.

State Sen. Wendy Davis plans leg­is­la­tion on can­cer agency.

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