The legislative founders of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas laid out the first draft of a bill to reform the embattled agency on Tuesday before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
CPRIT officials “interpreted policies in ways that I don’t believe any reasonable person would,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who in 2007 authored the legislation that founded CPRIT with Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Granbury. "... In doing so, they let us all down, elected officials, the public, advocates in the cancer community.”
The proposed legislation restructures CPRIT’s leadership staff, establishes a compliance program to ensure all rules and laws are followed and that each grant undergoes rigorous review, and creates a committee to receive and review recommendations by peer committees “rather than leave the power in the hands of a few.” It also prohibits CPRIT officials from serving on the boards of grantee organizations or the CPRIT Foundation, a nonprofit association that supplements the salaries of CPRIT’s executive director and chief scientific officer. It also prevents a series of actions between CPRIT employees, grantees and donors to the CPRIT Foundation that could easily lead to conflicts of interest. And it directs the CPRIT Foundation to publicly report its financial information, among other reforms.
“We intend on the House side and the Senate side to use the scalpel to get down to the basic foundation," said Keffer, who plans to file a companion bill in the House. "It is a challenge; no one underestimates what we are looking at.”
Keffer said restoring confidence in CPRIT is important because “the mission is still appropriate and the challenge of this dreaded disease, how it affects each one of us, is still there.”
The Senate Finance Committee also plans to address CPRIT officials and state auditors on Tuesday to discuss the future financing of CPRIT. Currently, a moratorium has been placed on CPRIT grants, and all funding for the institute has been slashed from the 2014-15 biennium budget.
State auditors, who testified before the health committee, found business and professional relationships between CPRIT’s management, CPRIT’s commercialization review council and donors who contributed to the CPRIT Foundation. They also found three grants that were approved without proper review — the executive director recommended the applications receive grants, but the peer review council did not — for a total of about $56.3 million. CPRIT also broke a state constitutional requirement by allowing grantees to report matching funds spent on other projects, rather than the CPRIT-funded research project, according to the audit.
Wayne Roberts, the interim executive director of CPRIT, said the organization plans to adopt all recommendations by state auditors.
A criminal investigation of CPRIT by the Travis County District attorney’s office is ongoing.