Halt work until after overhaul, some say
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.”