A scandal at the state’s cancer agency had more real-life consequences than political ones, but it also seeped into the legislative debate over other issues — particularly on whether the state has adequate oversight of its other programs.
It appears the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas — commonly known as CPRIT — will survive its mishandling of three major grants, totaling $56 million, but the private foundation that shared the CPRIT name won’t continue.
Legislators are sending Gov. Rick Perry a bill that increases checks and balances for the agency and makes conflict-of- interest restrictions more stringent. The budget deal gives CPRIT almost $600 million for grants over the next two years and adds eight employees, including an internal auditor, who will focus on post-award performance of grant recipients.
By eliminating the CPRIT Foundation, the Legislature is trying to end the appearance that grant applicants might influence awards with donations that supplemented the agency’s salaries. Instead, the Legislature is committing itself to paying the full tab with tax dollars instead of donations.
A criminal investigation is continuing, the agency’s executives have been replaced, and the oversight committee will be remade by Senate Bill 149.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, led the reform effort because they had authored the original creation of CPRIT. In 2007, Texas voters authorized $3 billion in bonds to fight cancer through prevention, research and commercialization programs.
“There was a lot of ‘I told you so’s’ around here,” Keffer said. “That’s OK, because we deserved it.”
Nelson and Keffer say the agency can get back on track, but they acknowledge they learned from the controversy.
“I’m disappointed that people abused the trust we had placed in them,” Nelson said. “I thought the rules were pretty clear. Obviously, they weren’t.”
CPRIT’s problems surfaced last year as a turf battle between proponents of research and commercialization. It blew up with the disclosure that the agency’s oversight committee — appointees of Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus — approved a $16 million grant to a Dallas startup, Peloton Therapeutics, without the required scientific and business reviews.
The cancer agency’s top executives, who have resigned, haven’t explained why they knew about the Peloton problem for almost two years without telling their superiors until right before it was reported in the media.
A critical audit disclosed deeper issues of mismanagement, improper expenditures and poor oversight of a statewide clinical trial system that was intended to help cancer patients get cutting-edge treatment closer to home. It was engulfed in the controversy before it saw its first patient and closed its doors.
State leaders froze six months of CPRIT grants and put its future funding in doubt, jeopardizing prevention programs that provide cancer screenings to thousands of Texans. It also left in limbo several cancer research teams who were in the middle of moving their labs to Texas.
Unlike most Capitol scandals, no elected officials are implicated directly. But the problems at CPRIT introduced an element into the broader Capitol debate over transparency and oversight of other government programs.
“I have heard the phrase, ‘We don’t want what happened at CPRIT happening here,’” Nelson said. “So the lesson, I guess, is to make sure you have all the protections necessary in place and are very, very clear and transparent.”
Keffer agreed. “When something like this happens, it really opens everyone’s eyes,” he said. “If this is going on over here, we’d better be sure other agencies are doing their jobs or find out if other foundations are unduly influencing decisions” at public institutions.
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is one of the legislators who have championed first-time audits and more oversight for the various economic development funds given to the private sector.
“I don’t think I would have been able to get all those bills out of the Senate without what was happening with CPRIT,” Davis said.
Likewise, Rep. Dan Flynn, who chaired a new committee on transparency in state agency operations, said CPRIT — and particularly issues with the CPRIT Foundation — led to legislation, including an attempt to have foundations supporting public institutions disclose their donors.
“It was a very noble cause with strong support,” Flynn, R-Canton, said of fighting cancer. “But because it had lack of oversight — largely because of lack of transparency — we saw people going in different directions”
Even with only three days left in the legislative session, it is too early to say with certainty what reforms will survive and what special interests will successfully exempt themselves. And, of course, Perry will have the final say with his veto power.
But the CPRIT scandal, at least, had legislators talking about the issues of oversight and transparency.
“Transparency has been the theme of this session,” Flynn said. “You’ve heard them say that from the front mic and the back mic a thousand times.”