Halt work un­til af­ter over­haul, some say


Austin American-Statesman - - NEWS - Con­tin­ued from A Con­tact Lay­lan Copelin at 445-3617.


It was noted, how­ever, that the Dec. 5 awards were the first grants in three years that had a new agency com­pli­ance of­fi­cer ver­i­fy­ing that all the agency’s pro­ce­dures had been fol­lowed.

The can­cer agency is in trou­ble with law­mak­ers be­cause it awarded an $11 mil­lion grant two years ago to a Dal­las startup with no re­view at all. A sec­ond grant ap­pli­ca­tion, from a Hous­ton busi­ness in­cu­ba­tor, was pulled af­ter the agency’s chief sci­ence of­fi­cer re­signed be­cause it wasn’t re­viewed by his com­mit­tee of sci­en­tists.

There is also the ques­tion of whether the agency’s panel of sci­en­tists should con­tinue to re­view grant ap­pli­ca­tions even if the agency’s over­sight com­mit­tee can­not give fi­nal ap­proval.

Sev­eral law­mak­ers said they wanted the agency to “stand down” un­til the Leg­is­la­ture had over­hauled the agency and its foun­da­tion by the same name. But Perry spokesman Josh Havens told the Amer­i­canS­tates­man on Thurs­day that the agency’s sci­en­tific re­views could con­tinue.

Thurs­day’s hear­ing was the can­cer agency’s first pub­lic air­ing by a leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee, but key play­ers in the agency’s melo­drama weren’t in at­ten­dance.

Jimmy Man­sour, chair­man of the agency’s over­sight com­mit­tee, had a death in his fam­ily and didn’t at­tend. Also, the three agency ex­ec­u­tives who have since re­signed didn’t at­tend the hear­ing.

Pitts promised they would ap­pear later, but he said they weren’t in­vited be­cause there was a re­quest to ques­tion them a month from now af­ter the state au­di­tor’s report is re­leased.

De­spite their ab­sence, the com­mit­tee pep­pered agency staff and one board mem­ber, Bar­bara Canales of Cor­pus Christi, with more than two hours of ques­tions and crit­i­cism.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Hous­ton, raised the is­sue of whether po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence was in­volved in grant de­ci­sions.

“We want an or­ga­ni­za­tion with in­tegrity, not a slush fund,” he said. “We have enough of those.”

Rep. Craig Ei­land, DGalve­ston, ques­tioned why the agency’s foun­da­tion re­fuses to re­lease the names of its donors who have given money to sup­ple­ment the $700,000 salary of the chief sci­ence of­fi­cer and the $300,000 salary of the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

“State agency of­fi­cers are be­ing sup­ple­mented with se­cret money,” Ei­land said.

Canales said she would dis­close the donors if it was up to her and sug­gested the names might be given to the Leg­is­la­ture.

“They could pub­lish them if they de­cided to,” she said.

The foun­da­tion’s lead­ers have re­peat­edly re­fused to dis­close donors, cit­ing their need for pri­vacy, but the lead­ers also say they are con­cerned they could be sued, be­cause they promised con­fi­den­tial­ity.

De­spite that prom­ise, the foun­da­tion hasn’t al­ways kept the donors’ iden­ti­ties se­cret. In a 2009 report to the Leg­is­la­ture, they re­vealed them be­fore stop­ping in sub­se­quent years.

Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, ques­tioned the need for the foun­da­tion.

“I’d have a hard time ex­plain­ing why a $300 mil­lion or­ga­ni­za­tion needs a foun­da­tion sup­ple­ment­ing salaries,” she said. “I think it put you in a gray area”

Rep. John Otto, RDay­ton, ques­tioned the agency’s pro­ce­dures for re­view­ing grants.

Agency of­fi­cials tout the re­views by out-of-state sci­en­tists, say­ing it helps keep pol­i­tics and un­due in­flu­ence out of the process.

But Otto ques­tioned al­low­ing Texas can­cer agency of­fi­cials to sit in on the de­lib­er­a­tions be­cause they might af­fect the out­come.

Otto in­cluded Al­fred Gil­man, the agency’s re­cently re­signed chief sci­ence of­fi­cer and a re­tired Univer­sity of Texas South­west­ern Med­i­cal Cen­ter of­fi­cial, in his re­marks.

“I’d pre­fer they not be in the room,” he said.

The ap­pro­pri­a­tions panel also ap­peared split over what the Leg­is­la­ture in­tended when it cre­ated the can­cer agency in 2007 with a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment and a $3 bil­lion bond au­tho­riza­tion.

Some think the money should be for aca­demic re­search and preven­tion pro­grams, while oth­ers fa­vor fund­ing com­pa­nies to com­mer­cial­ize the re­search into prod­ucts and treat­ments.

Ei­land ar­gued that the state’s univer­si­ties can com­mer­cial­ize their own re­search, while Otto said the pri­vate sec­tor could do it bet­ter and faster.

Canales said the $11 mil­lion grant to Pelo­ton Ther­a­peu­tics, which was never prop­erly re­viewed, was a “ter­ri­ble mis­take in process.”

“We have to get our house in or­der,” she said. But she added, “While we wait, peo­ple are dy­ing.”

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