A Travis County grand jury has indicted Jerry Cobbs, a former high-ranking official with the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, on charges that he unlawfully secured the execution of an $11 million grant for Peloton Therapeutics, a Dallas-based biotechnology firm.
The Travis County Public Integrity Unit opened an investigation into former CPRIT officials shortly after the CPRIT Oversight Committee disclosed in November 2012 that the institute had awarded that grant without proper scientific review.
Cobbs served as the institute's chief commercialization officer for three years, before resigning that month. In that role, he was responsible for presenting the Peloton grant to the Oversight Board for approval. Given the amount of the grant, and the allegations that Cobbs failed to disclose that it had not gone through the required review process, he is being charged with a first-degree felony punishable by five to 99 years in jail and up to a $10,000 fine. He turned himself in this morning and was released on an $85,000 bond, according to the Public Integrity Unit's Gregg Cox.
Glenn Smith, director of the liberal Progress Texas PAC and filer of the criminal complaint against CPRIT, released a statement saying that "those responsible for the corruption at CPRIT are being brought to justice." He said questions remain about the members of the Oversight Board responsible for approving the grant — including GOP gubernatorial candidate and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and outgoing Comptroller Susan Combs.
“The indictment of a former CPRIT official confirms that Greg Abbott has betrayed Texas taxpayers by failing to show up to even one CPRIT oversight board meeting,” state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said in a statement. “Greg Abbott has yet to fully explain why he failed in his basic oversight responsibilities to Texas taxpayers.”
Abbott staffers say he did not attend any of the oversight committee meetings because he designated another person within the AG’s office to represent him on the board. Abbott’s designee was not at the meeting during which the committee voted on the Peloton grant.
“Due to the ongoing nature of this prosecution, we cannot comment — except to say that we will continue working with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office on this case and stand ready to provide whatever investigative assistance may be required going forward,” the AG's spokesman, Jerry Strickland, said in a statement.
In 2007, Texas voters approved the creation of CPRIT to finance $3 billion in cancer prevention, research and commercialization projects over 10 years. Since 2010, the agency has awarded nearly 500 grants totaling $836 million and screened nearly 300,000 Texans for cancer.
But following allegations of corruption at the institute, state leaders placed a moratorium on new grants in December 2012. The state Legislature tentatively restored the institute’s $595 million 2012-13 operational budget in the 2013 session after passing provisions to restructure the agency’s grant award processes, improve oversight and prevent conflicts of interest. After a 10-month hiatus, the moratorium on new grants was lifted in October.
The indictment against Cobbs is the result of a larger investigation by the Public Integrity Unit, which also looked into alleged misspending by other CPRIT grant recipients, including the Clinical Trials Network of Texas, and concerns over possible conflicts of interest related to the CPRIT Foundation, a nonprofit that raised financing for the institute, and the business interests of CPRIT oversight board members. Cox said the investigation was delayed by Gov. Rick Perry's line-item veto of his unit's funding during the 2013 legislative session — a stance the governor took after Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg declined to resign following a drunken driving arrest.
According to Assistant District Attorney Rob Drummond, the Public Integrity Unit investigators and prosecutors spent months reviewing bank records, emails and other evidence to evaluate possible conflicts of interest between the CPRIT Foundation and former CPRIT oversight board members, and found no evidence of criminal misconduct. They now consider the investigation into CPRIT closed.