Cancer cronyism allegations examined at Texas Capitol hearing

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on December 20, 2012 at 6:59 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 20 at 7:40 PM

AUSTIN -- Lawmakers had unpleasant words for the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, known as CPRIT.

"It was sloppiness. It was high-handedness by some," said State Rep. James Keffer (R-Eastland), one of the original authors of the legislation which led to CPRIT's creation.

At a hearing Thursday at the State Capitol, Keffer and members of the Texas House Committee on Appropriations address spiraling controversy around the nation's second-largest source of cancer research funding.

"It's a disappointment to me that we're even having this meeting, that we're having to bring this before this committee and to the public, but I think it's time," said Keffer. "It's past time."

The institute was created with the outspoken support of Governor Rick Perry and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.

"I challenge the people to make the right decision," Armstrong told media in January of 2007, before voters approved $3 billion in bonds to finance the project over a 10-year period.

The institute has been in crisis since allegations of cronyism arose earlier this year. Two grants were cited in particular, including the secret approval of $11 million for Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics. The complaints led to a criminal investigation by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.

"That one apparently was given bypassing all the process that was set up for scientific review and any review at all," Lehmberg told KVUE earlier this month.

This week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus called for a moratorium on CPRIT grants. State Rep. Wendy Davis (D-Dallas) announced plans for legislation to reform grant oversight.

"There are a lot of very good questions that have been raised," Davis said in an interview Wednesday. "Until those are answered, we have to take a time out and make sure that we look to assure that everything is happening as we hope it is."

"Is there something where you all can see some transparency with respect to those who are seeking grants from your organization?" State Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston), the committee's co-chair, asked a panel of CPRIT representatives Thursday.

"We do not have that type of documentation," was the answer from CPRIT Chief Operating Officer Heidi McConnell. The institute's legal counsel explained that the institute employs other measures such as relying on grant researchers who live outside of Texas, in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest.

Not appearing at Thursday's hearing were three top executives who resigned in the wake of investigations by Lehmberg and the Texas Attorney General. The executives were not formally invited, and at least two told lawmakers they needed more time to prepare.

"These others whom we have some very serious questions for should be brought before this committee even if it means very strong and serious language," said State Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin).

With a report from the Texas state auditor due in January, it's only the first of more hearings to come.

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