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Updated: CPRIT Leaders Testify Before House Panel

Leaders of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas offered candid testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, explaining how the institute has changed its processes to prevent future improprieties.

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Updated, 4:50 p.m.: Leaders of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas offered candid testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, explaining how the institute has identified grants that were improperly approved, changed its processes to prevent future improprieties and aided state auditors in their investigation.

“I am angry about what has happened, and I intend to do everything I can to fix this problem,” said Dr. Margaret Kripke, who was appointed chief scientific officer of CPRIT in December. She added that she came to the institute in spite of the recent controversy because she sincerely believed in its mission. “I can promise you that my passion is in the right place, as is yours,” she said.

House members pressed CPRIT’s leadership to explain why million-dollar grants were approved without proper peer review and convince them that processes had been improved.

“Although the mistakes are regrettable, positive steps have begun … to prevent the recurrence of those,” said Wayne Roberts, CPRIT’s interim executive director. Later, he told lawmakers that “we just need to fix this problem and hopefully convince you that it should go on.”

Roberts said that when he came to the agency five weeks ago, a request for advanced payment from the statewide clinical trials network, CTNeT, which had been awarded a $25 million grant, caught his attention.

Roberts examined CTNeT’s expenditures and followed up on the former executive director’s request that the company repay $1.3 million in unauthorized expenditures on office furniture. CTNeT responded that those payments had been authorized by the former executive director and cited an undated memo. Concerned, Roberts personally walked those files to the state auditor’s office and the information was later included in the state’s audit.

“The bottom line is to find the cure, find the cure for this dreadful disease,” said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio. Although she supports continuing the mission of CPRIT, she told the institute’s leaders that they must restore the public’s trust. “It’s going to be hard, because you’ve got people who really don’t believe you all anymore, your credibility is in the toilet.”

Original story: Despite concerns about the management and structure of the disgraced Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas — and a zeroed out budget — the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday expressed a desire to reform the agency.

“I have a mother-in-law on chemo for 10 years, a dad who is a survivor. This was my heart vote last session,” said state Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. “Most of the time government is not the best vehicle [for programs like this], but I’m not sure I’m ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater yet.”

The committee heard testimony from state auditors about financial and management improprieties, and will hear additional testimony from CPRIT officials later in the day. Auditors and CPRIT officials also addressed the Senate Finance Comitttee on Tuesday. In the proposed 2014-15 biennium budget, the House and Senate did not appropriate any funds to CPRIT. The agency has $10.3 million remaining from the current budget, but $5.9 million will be transferred to another agency.

Bill Gimson and Alfred Gilman, the former executive director and chief science officer of CPRIT, had agreed to testify before the committee, but did not because of concerns from the Travis County District Attorney’s office about ongoing criminal investigations, Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts said. 

A state audit released in January found improper relationships between CPRIT oversight committee members and recipients of grants. They also identified three grants that had been approved without proper review. State Auditor John Keel said more than $60 million in grants and other payments were suspicious and that there could be additional improprieties, as the auditors only examined 26 of more than 500 grants. He said the money that was improperly awarded likely cannot be recovered by the state.

Of particular concern to auditors and state representatives was a $25 million grant to CTNeT, a statewide clinical trial network established with CPRIT money to accelerate the commercialization of cancer treatments. The audit states that CTNeT spent more than $400,000 on decorative expenses like office furniture. Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Desoto, encouraged lawmakers to work with the Attorney General’s Office to recover those funds. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers questioned auditors about the oversight process of CPRIT and asked how much of the error was attributable to bad structure vs. deliberate impropriety. 

“While I and all of us have many questions for previous CPRIT leadership, I and this Legislature want to send a loud and clear message [to] current and future leaders of CPRIT that lawmakers and Texans expect leaders to do their jobs,” said Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Granbury, who in 2007 co-authored the legislation that founded CPRIT with Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. Nelson and Keffer laid out the first draft of a CPRIT reform bill on Tuesday

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