Troubled Texas cancer institute targeted by lawmakers seeking reform
AUSTIN, Feb 05, 2013 (Fort Worth Star-Telegram - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Metroplex Sens. Jane Nelson and Wendy Davis unveiled separate bills today to reform the troubled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas after months of scandal over millions of dollars in questionable grants.
Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, also said that recipients of improper grants should be forced to reimburse the state. She specifically mentioned the Statewide Clinical Trials Network of Texas, or CTNeT, whose $25.2 million grant -- the largest awarded by CPRIT -- came under scrutiny in a recent state audit.
Davis outlined her bill, SB386, at a news conference several hours after Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, unveiled her proposal, SB149, at a committee hearing on CPRIT. Davis said she and Nelson are working together to possibly merge the bills.
Both senators angrily accused the cancer-fighting agency of betraying the public trust.
"I'm disappointed. I'm angry," Nelson said at the outset of the committee hearing. "But I'm also determined to prevent the poor judgment of a few to derail the hopes of millions of Texans suffering directly -- or through a loved one, indirectly -- from this terrible disease."
Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who also represents part of Tarrant County, sponsored legislation in 2007 that helped create the agency. But over the past year, CPRIT has been embroiled in turmoil after disclosures of lax internal controls and favorable treatment in the awarding of grants. The Travis County district attorney's office has opened a criminal investigation into the agency.
Wayne Roberts, CPRIT's interim director, told Nelson's committee that the agency is trying to get back on track and will implement all 41 recommendations in a recent state auditor's report that called on the agency to "significantly improve the transparency and accountability" of its grant process. Correcting the problems, he said, will enable the agency to "regain our momentum in the fight against cancer."
State Auditor John Keel said a restructuring of the agency should include removing the state attorney general and the state comptroller from the CPRIT board to "strengthen their ability" to oversee the agency.
The two high-ranking state officials are "impaired" from performing their oversight duties "by serving on a state agency board that is granting millions of dollars to recipients," Keel said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott later said that he agreed with the recommendation. "We don't think the attorney general should be on there, and so we would be in favor of that," Abbott said at another hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
Davis sharply questioned Abbott's and Comptroller Susan Combs' participation on the oversight panel, which has responsibility for overseeing the grants.
"What we know right now is we're asking the attorney general and comptroller essentially to police themselves," she said. "Every member of that oversight committee had a responsibility to assure that the statute was being followed ... and it appears that the oversight committee failed to do its job."
Cesar Saldivar, project manager for the CPRIT audit, told senators that CTNeT didn't exist until after the CPRIT oversight committee accepted the recommendation to award CTNeT a grant. The grant application was submitted by the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which was awarded the grant in June 2010. In August of that year, CTNeT registered to become a non-profit company to facilitate research with other institutions in Texas.
Saldivar also said that the CTNeT did not receive a favorable peer review score. CPRIT's oversight committee chairman, vice chairman and executive director interviewed and hired CTNeT's chief operating officer before the contract was executed, according to the audit.
Davis said that "taxpayer dollars" that went to CTNeT and other grant recipients should be returned to the state if they were used "for purposes that were not intended." Another recipient, Peloton Therapeutics of Dallas, has also drawn attention from lawmakers after reports that it received an $11 million grant without scientific review.
Texas voters passed a state constitutional amendment in 2007 creating CPRIT and authorizing up to $3 billion in bonds payable from state general revenue to fund research for preventing and curing cancer.
Declaring that "the public's trust has been broken," Davis said her bill is designed to provide "tough, necessary reforms" to the agency by strengthening the oversight committee, removing conflicts of interest, creating safety checks in the grant process and other steps.
The bill, which she said tracks the recommendations in the state audit, would remove the attorney general and comptroller from the board, restrict donations and political contributions, and prohibit the appointment of those with financial ties to a grant recipient from serving on the oversight committee.
It would also require grant recipients to sign a compliance agreement to be reviewed annually by a compliance review officer. Grant applicants would be barred from making donations to CPRIT. Members of the CPRIT board would be prohibited from serving on the board of the CPRIT Foundation, a separate entity.
The legislation introduced by Nelson and Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, would restructure CPRIT's governing body and implement several of the recommendations by Keel's audit.
High points of the legislation include creating a compliance program to ensure that each grant undergoes a rigorous peer review. The bill would also strengthen rules prohibiting business relationships between grant recipients, oversight committees and peer reviewers. CPRIT officials would also be prohibited from serving on grant-recipients' boards of directors or related foundations.
The controversy began unfolding in May when Dr. Alfred Gilman resigned as CPRIT's chief scientific officer and criticized a grant that he said hadn't undergone scientific review. CPRIT Executive Director Bill Gimson resigned from the agency in December.
"I believe in the cases that we've identified in this audit report, the individuals administering these grants failed the system," Keel said. "The system did not fail them."
Roberts told committee members that "not everything at CPRIT is spoiled" and pointed out that the agency has developed "a sophisticated grant" award program that has made nearly 500 awards totaling $836 million to 72 academic institutions, non-profit organizations and private companies.
"Although serious, the missteps appear to have affected only a few of our awards," he said.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief.
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