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San Antonio Express-News: Abbott mostly absent from CPRIT board
This morning the San Antonio Express-News ran a story detailing how Greg Abbott failed to provide oversight to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). Abbott should immediately suspend his investigation of CPRIT and appoint an independent investigator.
Abbott mostly absent from CPRIT board
By Todd Ackerman, Houston Chronicle
July 28, 2013
In the four years he served on the state cancer agency's governing board, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott exercised no oversight as the agency made misstep after misstep in awarding tens of millions of dollars to commercial interests.
The state's top lawyer and watchdog instead appointed one of his deputies, who missed about a third of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Oversight Committee meetings, and, by all accounts, was not much of a presence in the agency's questionable decision-making.
“It turns out that Abbott sitting on the oversight board was a green light rather than a caution sign,” wrote Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee. “Businesses backed by Abbott contributors — many of whom are partisan Republicans — have received large grants and contracts from CPRIT without fear of any oversight at all.”
The attorney general's minimalist scrutiny of the cancer institute did not draw much attention when the Legislature lit into the agency during the regular session, but now that he is running for governor it is becoming a significant campaign issue.
“It is surprising to me that someone who is the attorney general would not attend board meetings of a fund that involves $3 billion in taxpayer dollars,” said Tom Pauken, who is vying with Abbott for the nomination for governor in next spring's Republican primary.
Abbott's role at CPRIT has raised additional questions because of the investigation his office is conducting into the agency's scandals. Critics question how he can objectively investigate alleged conflicts of interest and favoritism at the agency after his office did nothing to stop it. They also ask how he can look into possible impropriety involving donors that made contributions to the agency and later received grants when some of those donors also have given to Abbott and figure to be tapped again as his gubernatorial campaign kicks into gear.
Abbott declined to speak to the Houston Chronicle, but in written responses to questions, a spokesman defended the attorney general's actions, arguing that designating a deputy to serve on the oversight board “allowed (him) to retain the independence to take action to respond to any broader challenges posed by CPRIT.”
“We had the foresight to recognize the potential for conflict between our general responsibilities under the laws and constitution of Texas, on the one hand, and specific duties related to the CPRIT Oversight Committee, on the other hand,” wrote Jerry Strickland, Abbott's chief communications officer.
Strickland wrote that Abbott's office “advocated against including the attorney general or a designee on the cancer agency's board at every step of the legislative process.” He added that “in an effort to have the law changed,” the office continued to reiterate its objections during legislative sessions that followed the agency's launch.
Texas Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, co-author of the 2007 legislation that created the cancer agency, has said in previously published comments that Abbott was appointed for “that extra set of eyes and knowledge.” Neither Keffer nor Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, his co-author, responded to questions about why the Legislature did not heed Abbott's objection to serving on the board.
The Keffer-Nelson legislation, overwhelmingly passed by voters in November 2007, created an agency authorized to award $300 million a year in grants over the coming decade. Since its 2009 launch, CPRIT has announced awards of more than $840 million, behind only the National Cancer Institute in government funding of cancer research.
CPRIT flew under the radar until 2012, when questions about some of its grants blew into scandals that threatened the agency's continued existence. Two huge grants — one involving M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the other a biotech start-up in Dallas — were found to have been awarded hastily, without proper review and potentially involving conflicts of interest. The Travis County District Attorney office's Public Integrity Unit and Abbott's office in December said they would launch investigations into the irregularities involving the grant given to the Dallas start-up, known as Peloton Therapeutics.
The scandal resulted in the resignations of the agency's top officials, a freeze on the awarding of grants, a scathing state audit that uncovered problems with a third major grant, legislative outrage and, ultimately, a reform bill that, among other things, removed the agency's entire board. The new board has not been appointed, and the freeze on grants remains in place.
A review of Abbott's correspondence while his office was on the oversight board, obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, found nothing expressing concern about the agency.
“It's nice to talk about suing Obama all of the time, but the attorney general has other duties,” Pauken said. “When there's so much taxpayer money on the table, it is surprising that the attorney general would be asleep at the switch.”
For The San Antonio Express-News
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott visits his wife Cecilia's parents' home in San Antonio on June 28, 2013.
Strickland dismissed criticism of the office's lack of oversight as political.
“Given the failure of CPRIT staff to follow procedure and properly inform the Oversight Committee, it would have been impossible for any designee to fully brief the attorney general about what was happening because they were left in the dark about critical decisions and mistakes along the way,” Strickland wrote. “Presumably, that's also why none of the oversight committee members appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor or the Speaker raised issues about the grants. Despite their varied experiences and expertise, they simply were not provided with information that would have raised red flags.”
That has not stopped critics from noting that some of the agency's most questionable grants went to companies affiliated with some of Abbott's major donors.
Since 2001, James Leininger has donated $289,000 to Greg Abbott, campaign finance records show, and Peter O'Donnell has contributed $130,000 during the same time period. Some political activists question these donations, noting that Leininger's company, Caliber Biotherapeutics, received $12 million from CPRIT for a scientific proposal despite receiving low scores from reviewers; O'Donnell invested in Peloton, whose $11 million award underwent no institutional review.
Strickland denied Abbott had any role in the awarding of grants to Caliber or Peloton.
Nevertheless, the financial ties have brought criticism that Abbott is too conflicted to conduct an impartial investigation and appeals for him to appoint an outside investigator. Both have come from legal experts, as well as those opposed to Abbott's campaign.
“For Abbott to investigate what went wrong at an agency whose board his office served on is a problem,” said Robert Schuwerk, a University of Houston law professor who writes about professional ethics and responsibility.
“He should step aside and not play any role in the investigation.”