American Cancer Society backs reeling Texas agency

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Associated Press

Posted on February 13, 2013 at 11:32 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas' troubled $3 billion cancer-fighting effort is worth saving, the American Cancer Society and other leading nonprofits told a key legislative committee Tuesday before its members backed sweeping reforms to the beleaguered state agency.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas remains at a standstill while under a moratorium and the target of a criminal investigation. Legislation approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday would shake-up the agency with new rules that include restructuring staff and stricter oversight.

Dorothy Gibbons, founder of the Houston-based nonprofit The Rose, which provides free mammograms, said the $3.6 million her group received from the agency, known as CPRIT, before the moratorium will pay for more than 10,000 screenings statewide.

Of the screenings that The Rose has done so far with state funds, Gibbons said more than 120 women found out they had cancer and were able to begin potentially life-saving treatment sooner.

"I couldn't find that money if I didn't have those grants," Gibbons said. "I couldn't find that kind of resources."

James Gray, a government relations director for the American Cancer Society, said the nonprofit giant is sticking by CPRIT after state auditors suggested there was no criminal intent despite issuing a scathing report that uncovered even more problems involving spending and potential conflicts within the agency.

CPRIT's biggest problems began in November when the agency revealed that an $11 million award to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics entirely bypassed the review process. The discovery triggered an ongoing criminal investigation by public corruption prosecutors in Travis County.

Gray said it was encouraging that CPRIT was the first to discover problems with the Peloton grant through an internal audit.

"They have been cleaning their own house for a while," Gray said.

The bill sent to the state Senate was written by Republican Sen. Jane Nelson, who also wrote the legislation that created CPRIT in 2007. Nelson's bill would prohibit agency executives from having business relationships with award recipients and strengthen oversight of rules that already require grant winners to put up matching funds.

Auditors discovered that a failed $25 million clinical trial network funded by CPRIT — the biggest project in the agency's brief history — was approved even though leaders of the trial network never obtained matching funds from other investors. The Clinical Trials Network of Texas, or CTNeT, went out of business last month because it could not meet payroll when the state cut off funding.

Auditors also found that CTNeT made prohibited purchases with cancer research money, including more than $100,000 for office furniture.

"We will not allow the actions of a few individuals to stand in the way of our effort to find treatments and cures for this terrible disease," Nelson said.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber .

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