The Widening Scandal Surrounding Texas’s Cancer-Fighting Agency
Five things to know.
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Texas’s state agency dedicated to fighting cancer has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks after word emerged that it had doled out a $11 million grant to Peloton, a Dallas-based company, without the required review process. James Drew and Sue Goetinck Ambrose of the Dallas Morning News had the scoop about the improperly awarded grant on November 29.
Here’s what you need to know about the widening and increasing convoluted scandal surrounding the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).
1. Who’s looking into the trouble at CPRIT?
Well, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. On Monday, Greg Abbott’s office sent a letter to the chairman of CPRIT’s governing board stating the investigation “include[s]—but is not limited to—any financial interest CPRIT staff or any other individual may have had in the Peloton grant award,” Daniel Hodge, first assistant attorney general, wrote in the letter, according to James Drew of the Dallas Morning News. And on Tuesday, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office announced its Public Integrity Unit is looking into how the agency awarded grants, KUT’s Nathan Bernier reported.
2. Any possible conflicts of interest here?
Yes, some are saying, including Cathy Bonner, who helped bring CPRIT into being and was a former aide to Ann Richards. Bonner told the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday that Abbott’s office has no business investigating CPRIT, as he (as well as the Texas Comptroller) is a “permanent member of CPRIT’s governing body.” (In total, eleven people sit on CPRIT’s oversight committee, and nine of those people are appointed by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and the Speaker of the House. The Texas Comptroller is the board’s other permanent member.)
“The legislation was never intended to give money to private companies and individuals so they could develop products to make money in the cancer marketplace,” Bonner told the DMN‘s Christy Hoppe in a statement. “The ultimate insult is to ask the same people that have been charged with overseeing these valuable research funds to investigate themselves. The state officials that appoint the oversight committee and the members of the oversight committee that includes the Attorney General are not independent and have no credibility investigating this agency that they are supposed to govern.”
But Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott, told the Dallas Morning News that a staffer for Abbott attends CPRIT's meetings and that his position on the board "did not preclude an investigation by the attorney general’s office."
The Dallas Morning News's Wayne Slater pointed out on Tuesday that "some of [CPRIT's] beneficiaries are [Abbott's] campaign donors." As he wrote,
The Dallas firm, [Peloton], lined up $18 million in commitments of private capital from investors, including businessman Peter O’Donnell of Dallas. O’Donnell has contributed at least $5,000 to Abbott’s political campaign. San Antonio businessman James Leininger and Austin entrepreneur Jimmy Mansour are investors in Gradalis, which got cancer-research money in 2010. Mansour is also chairman of the agency’s governing board. Leininger has donated at least $200,000 to Abbott and Mansour has given at least $6,000, according to state records.
James Moore, director of Progress Texas PAC, opined in a piece about the scandal in the Huffington Post titled "Cancer Cronyism" that "news reports indicate the best formula for winning a grant from CPRIT involves having a political connection to either the governor or lieutenant governor of Texas."
3. Are any heads rolling over this?
Funny you'd ask. On Monday, CPRIT's Executive Director Bill Gimson resigned, effective January 17. "The last 8 months have been extremely difficult for those at CPRIT," he wrote in a letter to his employees, according to the Texas Tribune. “During this time they have not been able to do their jobs due to wasted efforts expended in low-value activities that do nothing to advance cures for cancer."
CPRIT said "procedural lapses" and oversight led to the grant being awarded to Peloton, and blamed Jerald "Jerry" Cobbs, the agency's "chief commercialization officer," for the problem. Cobbs resigned on November 16, according to the Dallas Morning News's investigation.
4. Did anyone speak up about the problems?
In May, the organization's chief science officer, Alfred Gilman, announced he was resigning from his post because of problems with the review process. And "dozens of other scientists who have evaluated proposals have quit amid concerns that the agency strayed from its peer review system, in which experts, mostly from out of state, review applications to prevent conflicts of interest," Drew and Goetinck Ambrose wrote.
5. So how did CPRIT come to be, and what is the agency's goal?
A full 61 percent of Texans voted for Proposition 15 in 2007, allowing the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund "groundbreaking cancer research and prevention programs" in Texas. This created "the nation's second-largest pot of cancer research dollars," the AP noted. Here's how the organization bills itself on its website:
CPRIT’s goal is to expedite innovation and commercialization in the area of cancer research and to enhance access to evidence-based prevention programs and services throughout the state. Under the guidance of its governing body, the Oversight Committee, CPRIT accepts applications and awards grants for a wide variety of cancer-related research and for the delivery of cancer prevention programs and services by public and private entities located in Texas. All CPRIT-funded research will be conducted in state by Texas-based scientists and reflect CPRIT’s mission to attract and expand the state’s research capabilities and create high quality new jobs in Texas. . . . CPRIT will maintain the highest integrity and dedication to the mission of finding a cure for cancer.
The pair of legislators who sponsored the initial CPRIT legislation, State Sen. Jane Nelson and Rep. Jim Keffer, on November 30 expressed their concerns about the grant to Peloton in a joint letter to the agency. “CPRIT cannot succeed in its effort to fight cancer without the public's trust, and right now that trust is in serious jeopardy," they wrote. "We will continue to look into this matter ... [and] search for solutions to prevent such an egregious oversight from occurring in the future."
Confused? Drew's story comes complete with a handy timeline.