State leaders: Stop giving cancer grants
Governor, Dewhurst and House speaker say troubled agency must first get its house in order.
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.