North Texas senator hopes troubled cancer institute will rebound with restructuring

Posted Wednesday, Apr. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- The state Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed legislation to restructure the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, proposing stringent safeguards to help the cancer-fighting agency get back on track after months of scandal.

"CPRIT isn't the first agency to stumble and it won't be the last," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, "but CPRIT must be held to a higher standard because its mission is so important."

Nelson, who sponsored legislation that helped create CPRIT in 2007, said her latest bill would help restore public confidence in CPRIT and return it to the fundamental goal of preventing and curing cancer. She described herself as "livid" over continued disclosures that have made the agency the target of a criminal investigation and widespread condemnation in the Legislature.

Revelations of alleged favoritism involving millions of dollars in research grants have resulted in staff upheaval at the agency and continued scrutiny by state officials. Another controversy engulfed CPRIT this week after lawmakers were told of plans to close a foundation created to raise funds for the agency.

"If a common thief had done this they would be so far under the jail, we would have to pump sunlight to them," said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Nelson's bill incorporates the recommendations of a critical 2012 state audit that exposed potential conflicts of interest within the agency and called on CPRIT to "significantly improve the transparency and accountability" of its grant process.

One of the audit recommendations included in SB149 would remove the state attorney general and the comptroller as members of CPRIT's oversight committee. State Auditor Tom Keel suggested that the two officials' participation on the CPRIT panel could impair them from conducting a critical outside review.

The bill also calls for tighter controls on the distribution of grants, toughens internal oversight and contains measures to prevent conflicts between CPRIT staff members and commercial ventures that could receive grant funds from the agency.

The CPRIT scandal has been a high-profile issue in the 2013 Legislature, with Nelson and Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, introducing bills in February to restructure the agency.

Nelson, who represents part of Tarrant County, accepted an amendment by Davis that would require the posting of donor information on the Internet.

Davis also proposed an amendment that would allow the agency to spend more than 10 percent of the grants on research funds to prevent cancer but Senators rejected the proposal by 20-9 vote. Current law caps expenditures for prevention at 10 percent of the agency's grants, and Nelson expressed concern that the absence of a cap could possibly result in unlimited spending for prevention.

"Grants for cancer prevention literally save lives by increasing the rate of detection of cancers in their most treatable stage," she said. "While I'm disappointed the Senate failed to add the amendment, I'm hopeful that more funding will go to cancer prevention by the end of the session."

Another Davis amendment, which she withdrew, would have required CPRIT records to be subject to disclosure under the state's open records law. Nelson said she worried that the requirement could possibly expose proprietary information, but she and Davis agreed to work on the amendment to remove any proprietary threats.

Regaining trust

Nelson repeatedly told colleagues of her dismay over the alleged abuses by an agency she helped create. But she also expressed hope that her bill would help rebuild CPRIT and regain public trust.

"Nobody is angrier than I am," she said. But, she told senators, "I still believe in CPRIT's mission. CPRIT has done many good things. Unfortunately, there were a couple of people who figured out how to circumvent the rules and laws that were already in place."

Other senators also heaped criticism on the alleged abuses by a once-promising agency.

"To besmirch cancer research takes a rare talent, a talent that mostly belongs in the penitentiary," said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, who opposed the creation of CPRIT, said he believes the state should "totally eliminate" CPRIT and channel cancer-research money through an existing agency.

"Why can't we funnel that money through them instead of having this bureaucratic mess in place," he said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief, 512-739-4471

Twitter: daveymontgomery

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