The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This: The Big C Stands for Corruption

Even after reforms at CPRIT, Rick Perry remains in charge

By Amy Smith, December 20, 2013, News

On the Friday before District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg stood trial for a civil complaint brought to remove her from office, she called a press conference to announce the indictment of a former executive of Tex­as' cancer prevention and research agency.

Under the indictment, Jerald "Jerry" Cobbs – until last year the chief commercialization officer of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas – is charged with "securing execution of a document by deception." Translated, that means he awarded an $11 million grant in 2010 to Peloton Therapeutics, a Dallas start-up firm, without running the application through legally required oversight reviews at CPRIT.  

Reading from a statement Dec. 6 in front of a clump of TV cameras, Lehmberg said the lone felony indictment would effectively conclude the yearlong CPRIT probe headed by the Public Integrity Unit, a state-funded arm of the D.A.'s office charged with investigating public corruption in the state.

Jerry Who?

Oddly, in the year since the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle began reporting on the political cronyism at CPRIT, Cobbs had been one of the lower-profile names mentioned in news stories that primarily focused on the political contributions Rick Perry and David Dewhurst raked in from associates of firms awarded millions in grants, on the Perry and Dewhurst donor-appointees on the cancer agency's oversight committee (also known as the foxes guarding the hen house), and the questionable grants CPRIT was awarding in the first place.

By the time the news circulated of the Travis County indictment, Cobbs had quietly turned himself in to authorities and was just as quietly released after posting bail.

Lehmberg, meanwhile, spent the following week getting publicly raked over the coals in a civil trial stemming from a drunken-driving charge in April. The complaint, seeking to have the D.A. removed from office, was ultimately dismissed and Lehmberg kept her job, what was left of her dignity, and her power to investigate complex public corruption cases like the CPRIT ordeal (see last week's "Point Austin" column for more on the Lehmberg trial and outcome).

Dumbed-Down Outrage

It's easy to understand why there was more moral outrage over Lehmberg's night behind the wheel than the massive bungling of a $3 billion taxpayer initiative to cure cancer. It's easy to understand because, well, it's easier to understand, thanks to the dumbed-down video saturation of Lehmberg at her worst, and the endless political posturing we witnessed during this year's legislative session. In June, Perry even made good on his threat to veto the Public Integrity Unit's $7.5 million budget if Lehmberg didn't heed his call to resign from her post. In a statement accompanying the veto, Perry said, "I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public's confidence." (Perry is under investigation to determine whether he abused his power in delivering the ultimatum.)

If anyone is more deserving of losing the public's confidence, it's our ethically challenged state leaders – not just Perry and Dewhurst, but Attorney General Greg Abbott, who served on CPRIT's governing board and, we now know, never attended any of CPRIT's 23 meetings. A little background here: Perry vowed to work toward curing cancer in his 2007 State of the State address and that same year, with Perry and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong leading the campaign charge, voters overwhelming approved $3 billion in bonds to create a cancer research and prevention agency. The very idea of Perry and his friends helming a tax-funded slush fund was one reason I voted against the constitutional amendment. Message to voters about future potential boondoggles: Trust your gut – vote no.

At the very least, this year's Legislature saw fit to implement a number of reforms that added long-overdue transparency and replaced the oversight committee with new members. After seeing how Perry runs his other two pet projects, the tax-financed Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund, it's amazing that the Lege didn't establish stricter ground rules for CPRIT from the beginning.

A January 2013 audit of CPRIT pretty much confirmed what news outlets had already been reporting, and even Perry had to admit that CPRIT needed fixing. The audit called on the cancer agency to "significantly improve the transparency and accountability of its grant management processes," and noted that "CPRIT's lack of controls for ensuring there are not any business and professional relationships between its peer reviewers and grantees impairs CPRIT's ability to assure the public that its award decisions are not improperly influenced."

More specifically, the audit brought to light questionable decisions made in awarding other grants besides the one awarded Peloton (which has since been required to reapply for funding). The D.A.'s investigation also reviewed two other grants – one awarded to the Clinical Trials Network of Texas, and another to a Houston consortium. The latter grant was never funded as it had prompted the resignation of CPRIT's chief scientific officer, who questioned the decision. The probe also concerned potential conflicts of interest related to CPRIT oversight members, but the grand jury returned a single indictment – against a man who most people had never heard of until Dec. 6.

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