Cancer-Fighting Charity Hired Tobacco Lobbyist

A beleaguered cancer-fighting charity paid a tobacco lobbyist $5,000 a month to represent its interests in the Texas Legislature, even as it was winding down its operations and facing the wrath of lawmakers.

Jay Maguire, who represents three off-brand cigarette companies, was hired in January to represent the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Foundation, and his contract remained in force at its successor charity, the Texas Cancer Coalition, both Maguire and coalition spokesman Marc Palazzo said.

Maguire and the charity’s executive director, Jennifer Stevens, both said they saw no conflict in the arrangement. But some former board members said they were unaware of Maguire’s tobacco ties when he was hired. And amid questions about foundation expenditures from the attorney general’s office, Maguire said he willingly agreed to end his contract immediately Tuesday, about six weeks before its expiration date. He said other contractors have made similar deals.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, called the decision to hire Maguire “bad judgment from bad leaders” and said it was impossible to reconcile cancer-fighting efforts with cigarette company advocacy.

“How can you be in one part of the Capitol advocating for best practices in cancer research … and then on the other end arguing on behalf of industry saying tobacco companies need regulating a certain way?” Martinez Fischer said. “That seems to be the story of the CPRIT Foundation. It’s just one conflict of interest after another.” 

The foundation served as a nonprofit fundraising arm of the cancer research institute, or CPRIT, a state agency created to enhance cancer research and promote cures. CPRIT is now under investigation — and facing an overhaul from the Legislature — over irregularities involving the awarding of lucrative cancer research grants.

Amid CPRIT’s woes, the foundation-turned-coalition has previously announced it would shut down by the end of May. But it continued to pay staffers and contractors — including Maguire — as it was winding down, officials say. Top legislators and the attorney general’s office said they were trying to save as much of the privately raised money as possible so that it could be redirected to CPRIT’s core cancer-fighting mission.

Maguire ended his contract as part of the wind-down discussions. 

The lobbyist, whose father died of lung cancer, says there was never a conflict of interest with his dual roles as lobbyist for both cigarette makers and the cancer-fighting nonprofit. On the tobacco front, he said he is only representing small cigarette makers in their drive to keep the Legislature from levying what he considers an unfair tax on companies that weren’t part of a massive lawsuit settlement in the 1990s.

“I never advocate for smoking or other tobacco use,” Maguire said. “My work is strictly limited to ensuring that Big Tobacco does not get away with using its tremendous resources to drive small competitors out of business.”

But the big companies say the cigarette makers Maguire represents — sold under brand names like Cheyenne, Main Street and Berkley — are merely trying to protect and grow their market share without paying into a fund used to care for people harmed from tobacco products.

At least one of Maguire’s clients, Cheyenne International, sells cigars that look like cigarettes but are taxed at far lower rates. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids is calling for more regulation and higher taxes on small, flavored cigars it alleges are being packaged and priced to appeal to young people. Maguire disputes the allegation but says his lobby work is confined to cigarette tax issues.

During this session of the Legislature, his tobacco clients are opposed to a bill by Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, that make big and small cigarette makers pay the same amount of taxes and fees, regardless of whether they were sued by Texas.

For the CPRIT Foundation, Maguire says he lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the cancer institute the charity was set up to assist. That included asking for favorable treatment in the appropriations process and answering questions from reform-minded legislators, he said.

Stevens, the executive director of the foundation (and now the newly named coalition), wrote Maguire on Tuesday saying the foundation was aware of his tobacco clients when he was hired. She said he was tapped for his expertise and skill.

“This is to confirm that the CPRIT Foundation did not believe that you had a conflict of interest with your representation of us,” she wrote. “We appreciate your bringing this to our attention at the outset when we first engaged your services for the session.”

But two former board members say they had no idea about Maguire’s tobacco ties.

That includes the former board member whom the charity identified as the person at the foundation who technically hired Maguire — Dr. Joseph Bailes.

“I am shocked and appalled that Jay Maguire would go to work for a cancer-fighting organization if he had tobacco clients,” Bailes said. “I never would have hired anybody like that. I’ve fought cancer my whole life. 

Former foundation board member Jimmy Mansour, who still chairs CPRIT’s governing board, also was unaware of the tobacco clients, said his spokesman, Bill Miller.

Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who has been pressing CPRIT and the foundation for swifter and more dramatic changes, said hiring a tobacco lobbyist to carry the charity’s message to the Legislature fit a pattern of incompetence and bad decision-making within the state’s cancer-fighting bureaucracy.

Perry said he didn’t fault Maguire for “making a living,” but called the foundation’s decision to hire him in January another sad disclosure. 

“You just have to go back to it being just one more case of bad judgment,” he said. “I think it’s more reflective of the foundation than it is anything else.”

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