More heat than light from CPRIT hearings

By Laylan Copelin
American-Statesman Staff
Originally published Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013

There is always bit of a lynch mob mentality when Texas lawmakers go after a Capitol scandal.

So it was last week for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the small state agency created to manage a $3 billion, 10-year effort to fund scientists and organizations looking for cures and treatments for various cancers.

Lawmakers had “invited” two of three former executives for the agency — which is commonly known as CPRIT — to testify at a legislative hearing. But then prosecutors reminded them of a state law that inadvertently could have given witnesses immunity from prosecution.

The “necktie party” was called off, but it left me wondering why Bill Gimson, the former CPRIT executive director, and Alfred Gilman, the former chief science officer, were singled out.

What about Jerry Cobbs, the chief commercialization officer who left CPRIT in November shortly after it was disclosed that CPRIT had awarded a Dallas startup, Peloton Therapeutics, an $11 million grant two years ago — without the required scientific and business reviews?

“Who’s Jerry Cobbs?” responded a key lawmaker, the figurative rope still in his hand when I asked him why Cobbs wasn’t invited.

Cobbs, according to a CPRIT internal audit, was the one who “improperly” put Peloton on the agenda for consideration by the agency’s oversight committee more than two years ago.

I couldn’t reach Cobbs for comment (call me?) but he told CPRIT’s compliance officer that he thought Peloton was on the agenda “for permission to perform due diligence on company. Not for approval to fund.”

OK, but why didn’t Cobbs raise his hand and stop the oversight committee when it became clear they were writing checks to a startup with not much more than a business plan and no formal review?

After all, more than two years went by before CPRIT discovered its mistake.

Peloton, Cobbs told CPRIT’s compliance officer, “fell outside the cracks.”

Jimmy Mansour, the chairman of CPRIT’s oversight committee, told lawmakers “I think it was the one major pothole for the agency.”

After hearing about CPRIT’s shortcomings over two days of legislative hearings, I think Mansour was being a bit generous with his assessment of CPRIT’s track record.

Amazingly, the lawmakers didn’t really challenge him on that.

The prevailing mood at the Capitol seems to be: Blame the departed bureaucrats, but don’t blame the part-time agency oversight committee — who happen to be political appointees of Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus Jr. (Comptroller Susan Combs and Attorney General Greg Abbott round out the 11-member board.)

Maybe the Legislature recognizes it vested almost all of the power at CPRIT with out-of-state scientists, who we pay to review the projects, and the agency’s executive team that controlled the process.

Their reasoning? Lawmakers say they wanted the awards based on science, not politics.

On the face of it, it’s hard to argue with that.

Out-of-state scientists, it was reasoned, wouldn’t be influenced by outside factors.

Mull it for a moment, though. What does it say about the state of our politics that we can’t trust our cancer-fighting effort not to be corrupted by politics?

The out-of-state process, at least according to last week’s testimony, largely worked. But CPRIT still mishandled some of its largest grants and contracts — and the oversight committee appears to have played a role.

Why didn’t CPRIT’s oversight committee follow its own rules? Why did it advance money to grantees as opposed to only reimbursing expenses once they were incurred? Why pay millions to a “virtual management company” to assist companies applying for grants? Why didn’t it always require an applicant to have “skin in the game” with hard-dollar matching funds? What about those emails trying to rush a $20 million incubator grant? Did outside factors still play a role?

The oversight committee might have answers for all those questions. But the lawmakers didn’t really press for them.

Last week’s hearings provided more heat than illumination, more venting than pointed questions.

But it was a start.

The public deserves a full explanation of what went wrong — and why.

Otherwise, the public won’t believe it when legislators claim they fixed CPRIT.