Cancer Cronyism

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Friday, April 13, 2012. (AP Photo
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Friday, April 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Everything is political. Even cancer. And especially in Texas.

Six years ago, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) was founded. Voters funded the institute with $3 billion of bonded indebtedness over 10 years. Cancer survivor, athletic endurance wonder boy, and legendary liar Lance Armstrong went before the Texas legislature and made an emotional plea for lawmakers to place the CPRIT bonds before voters. Even the state's governor, often befuddled by verb and noun associations, sounded articulate on the topic of cancer research. A total of 100,000 people each year in Texas are diagnosed with cancer.

Voters were convinced. They authorized the state to spend $300 million annually to provide research grants and business investments to find new drugs to defeat the killer disease. CPRIT became the second largest source of research money outside of Washington, D.C. People were hopeful. But that's a lot of money. Greed and politics were drawn to the fund.

And nothing has been cured but much has been infected.

Initially, CPRIT was able to attract top scientific minds, including two Nobel laureates to oversee applications for grants and investments. Big name researchers added credibility to a new agency. Nobel laureates haven't ever been involved in Texas style business and politics, however, and when a Houston bio-tech investor intervened in the grant review process to speed up an award he particularly favored, the scientists resigned. And the rest of the review committee followed, saying that the considerations for investing on every application for funding had more to do with political connections than with any scientific merit.

The chairman of CPRIT, Jimmy Mansour, mistakenly sent an email that expressed relief to his colleagues that the scientists were leaving. Mansour, who is a major campaign contributor to Texas Governor Rick Perry and was appointed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, made clear he was looking to focus the cancer fund more on commercialization than research. This is another way of saying they wanted the money to go to businesses instead of researchers.

That's also where political influence is more important than merit.

Dr. William Kaelin of Harvard, who was one of those reviewing commercial grants, said the process was corrupted by influence. "I recently learned that at least two scientific reviewers who had given non-fundable scores to a commercialization project were asked by CPRIT to 'reconsider' their scores so that they would be in harmony with those given by the commercial reviewers, who were much more favorable. I am not confident that scientific quality and rigor will triumph over grandiose promises and hucksterism." The Houston Chronicle reported his comments.

News reports indicate the best formula for winning a grant from CPRIT involves having a political connection to either the governor or lieutenant governor of Texas. One significant campaign donor to Rick Perry didn't even go into the cancer cure business until after CPRIT was founded, and then he got the millions he needed from the taxpayer fund. An $18 million dollar grant was awarded to a Houston cancer project after pressure from a politically connected venture capitalist that had given $360,000 to the campaigns of Dewhurst. The proposal had undergone only a cursory review, which originally resulted in rejection.

Two organizations, Progress Texas PAC and Texans for Public Justice have asked the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney's office in Austin and the U.S. attorney in San Antonio to launch an investigation into possible criminal activity after it was reported that an $11 million dollar grant was given to a company with virtually no scientific or business review of its proposal. Further, CPRIT's board and executives reported that emails related to the decision to award the money to Peloton Therapeutics of California have now disappeared.

One of the investors in Peloton is a Dallas philanthropist who, according to the Dallas Morning News, has given $240,000 to Rick Perry's campaigns and $200,000 to David Dewhurst's. The members of CPRIT's oversight committee are almost all appointed by Perry and Dewhurst but the head of the organization has said, "No awards are ever made for personal gain and never will be."

Realizing they have a burgeoning scandal on their hands that is likely to harm their political benefactor Rick Perry, CPRIT's leadership has vowed to get to the bottom of how Peloton got its award without undergoing either scientific or business scrutiny. Mansour has asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate the operations of CPRIT while legislators plan to re-examine how the fund was established. Unfortunately, Abbott is a permanent member of CPRIT's governing board and is, essentially, being asked to investigate himself and the organization of which he is a member.

The CPRIT investigation request is little more than a political head fake, in any case. The method for scoring funding requests has been subject to political influence from the time CPRIT began operations. Mansour and CPRIT officials, in order to distract from those improprieties, are hoping to convince the public and investigators that the Peloton case was simply a mistake made by a neophyte agency with no established protocols. The more obvious determination based upon reporting by news agencies is that the process was corrupt from the outset and was wildly beneficial to Perry and Dewhurst campaign contributors.

Missing emails are never a good sign, either. And if they are recovered with forensic work and show communications regarding what the governor wanted to happen at CPRIT on certain projects, Rick Perry's problems will become acute. He has already decided to put countless Texans at risk by refusing to participate in establishing an exchange under the Affordable Care Act and reporting thus far indicates he is also willing to play politics with cancer. CPRIT was established through the good faith of voters that wanted to give hope to cancer patients. Instead, Perry is giving hope to political cronies with often half-baked ideas.

In Texas, political cronyism is an epidemic with no apparent cure.