Institute needs radical treatment

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Can the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas survive its scandals? How can voters and scientists ever be able to trust the state-funded entity again?

In 2007, Texas voters authorized a $3 billion bond to fund cancer-fighting research, prevention and commercialization projects.

But the agency lost track of its noble goal. According the state auditor, last year CPRIT mangled at least three of its biggest grants, awarding more than $56 million without proper scientific and business reviews. Millions of grant dollars were directed to projects with friends in high places. And people connected to research outfits hoping to pull down grants made donations to the secretive CPRIT Foundation that boosted salaries for CPRIT officials — an arrangement that sure looks like a pay-to-play deal.

As the Texas House and Senate discuss CPRIT’s future, we’re pleased that legislators seem to believe that the institute can and should be saved. But if it’s to survive, radical treatment is needed to restore the public trust. That aggressive therapy should include:

Tougher new operating rules. The state auditor’s report offers a useful list of changes that need to be made to the way the agency does its business — everything from how CPRIT decides grant awards to how the institute verifies that its grant money has been spent properly.

It’s obvious that members of CPRIT’s oversight committee shouldn’t have financial or personal ties to groups that are applying for its grants; and obvious, too, that the institute should require disclosure of such ties. Such rules need to be firmly in place.

No private foundation. Earlier this month, after a bizarre attempt to change its name and mission and possibly make off with hundreds of thousands of dollars that it owed the state, the magnet-for-scandal CPRIT Foundation finally imploded, saving legislators the trouble of killing it. In retrospect, the nonprofit entity — separate from CPRIT, but sharing many board members — looks like little more than a way to keep donors’ identities, and thus conflicts of interest, private and out of the public eye.

Surely CPRIT, a $3 billion public initiative, didn’t need a nonprofit to pay competitive salaries to its top officials. And if philanthropists wanted to help boost those salaries, they could have done so in the light of day by giving money directly and openly to the state institute.

A new board. Were CPRIT’s board members actively involved in the scandals? If not, did they have knowledge of stinky deals but fail to stop them? Or did they simply miss major problems with the way that the agency made grants worth tens of millions of dollars? We leave those questions to the civil and criminal investigations now under way.

For CPRIT’s future, the answer doesn’t really matter: Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the board’s oversight failed spectacularly. Those board members need to go. CPRIT needs a fresh start and a new rulebook. The agency is supposed to fight cancer — not allegations.

Houston Chronicle


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