Controversy has been swirling around the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas over the last several months, but last week, it all came to a head.
CPRIT, a state agency, was created in 2007 after Texans voted on a constitutional amendment to allow the state to sell bonds, totaling to $3 billion over the course of 10 years, for innovation in cancer research and prevention. CPRIT doles out approximately $300 million a year, appropriated by the Texas Legislature, in the form of research grants to Texas universities and commercialization grants to Texas companies working to create medical technologies to diagnose, prevent, or treat cancer.
“We want an organization with integrity, not a slush fund,” Houston State Representative Sylvester Turner said.
This week, Texas’ Big Three — Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speak Joe Straus — called on CPRIT to halt all new grants pending an investigation into whether or not the grant review process breaks state law.
The Travis County district attorney, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and the state auditor’s office are all looking into the issue.
“It is vital that CPRIT fully address the concerns that have been raised about its process and operations prior to future grants being awarded,” Perry, Dewhurst and Straus wrote in a letter to the organization’s oversight committee.
Since its inception, CPRIT has given out 502 grants, funded 11 cancer-fighting companies and funded screening for more than 45,000 Texans for various types of cancer, according to the leadership’s letter.
Questions about the integrity of CPRIT’s grant-awarding process started back in May. Through a series of open records requests, the Dallas Morning News reported on internal fights among high-ranking officers about grant approval oversight, or lack thereof.
Dr. Albert Gilman, chief scientific officer at CPRIT and a Nobel Prize winner, was forced to resign “after he objected to what he saw as political interference in the $3 billion program,” according to the Morning News. Several other CPRIT staff and reviewers have quit since the Morning News began publishing email exchanges back in June that revealed, among other things, an $11 million grant was awarded without proper review.
Several other grants came into question, including one awarded to a major campaign contributor of Gov. Perry’s. According to some reports, it appears the governor and lieutenant governor may have stacked CPRIT’s oversight committee with political friends as well.
Seem complicated and shady? It is.
The House Appropriations Committee met last week to discuss the future of CPRIT’s funding and hear from staff members (at least, the ones that still work there) about its principles and oversight process. House Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was particularly vocal during the hearing, pressing CPRIT staffers about conflicts of interest, oversight committee members, and peer reviewers.
As of now, CPRIT is no longer distributing grants, but the saga isn’t over yet. The Texas Legislature meets again starting next month and will almost certainly bring up this issue before they leave Austin in May. Committee members and witnesses on Thursday agreed that CPRIT needs to get its house in order and reevaluate its practices.
“We want an organization with integrity, not a slush fund,” Turner said.