Athens Review, Athens, Texas

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April 3, 2013

Overhaul cancer agency?

Texas Senate votes to change management of organization

Athens — AUSTIN, Texas  — The Texas Senate voted Wednesday to overhaul management of the state's cancer-fighting agency, which has been rocked by investigations into how it awarded millions of dollars in grants.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has been under fire since last year over grants that bypassed the state's review process. A scathing report from the state auditor alleged widespread failings at CPRIT involving transparency, accountability and decision-making.

CPRIT is facing multiple state and local civil and criminal investigations and has been placed under a spending moratorium.

The agency was created after Texas voters in 2007 approved spending $3 billion over 10 years on cancer research. That "honorable" effort has been tarnished by the scandal surrounding the agency, said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who wrote the restructuring bill.

"I am so angry and so disappointed," Nelsons said, calling her bill necessary to restoring public trust. "CPRIT isn't the first agency to stumble and it won't be the last, but CPRIT must be held to a higher standard because its mission is so important."

Among the questionable grants uncovered at CPRIT was $11 million to a Dallas-based startup that completely bypassed the review process. An additional $25 million was awarded to a cancer clinical network that spent more than $100,000 on office furniture and never secured matching funds from outside investors as required under state law.

State lawmakers also were troubled that a nonprofit foundation used to supplement agency salaries took large donations from companies or individuals who have benefited from some agency grants.

Nelson's bill creates new oversight positions with the agency to make sure grants are awarded properly and bars agency employees from having business relationships with grant recipients. The bill also requires the foundation to publicly report financial information and bans grant awards to foundation donors.

Nelson promised lawmakers her bill creates an "iron-clad system of check and balances" to ensure the same problems "will never happen again."

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who voted for the overhaul, said he would prefer to "totally eliminate CPRIT after this debacle that has been embarrassing to this state."

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he encouraged voters to approve the initiative six years ago and now he hears "rage" over the program.

"If a common thief had done this, they would probably be so far under the jail right now we'd have to pump sunlight to them," West said.

Despite its problems, other leading nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Livestrong Foundation, have urged lawmakers to keep CPRIT.

"While CPRIT is doing important work to prevent and treat cancer, it's just as important that its work be aboveboard and with full transparency," said James Gray, a government relations director for the American Cancer Society.

Nelson's bill now moves to the House, where the agency faces further scrutiny. The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on a new two-year state budget that includes no new research money for CPRIT, a sign that lawmakers there are not convinced the agency is on the right track.

 

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