Updated 12/12/2012 03:08 PM
Public Integrity Unit launches criminal investigation on CPRIT
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On the same day the head of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas resigned, investigators launched a criminal probe into the state agency.
CPRIT Executive Director William Gimson stepped down Tuesday. This after 31 scientists and two Nobel Laureates quit the $3 billion publicly-funded research institute during the last several months.
Those same scientists have gone public in the aftermath of the state agency shake up accusing CPRIT's administration of "hucksterism" and "preferential treatment." The former researchers believe executives within the institute rate choosing to fund commercialization projects rather than funding scientific research projects.
In his resignation letter to CPRIT, Harvard Medical School Medical Researcher William G. Kaelin writes, “Trying to commercialize flawed science is a prescription for failure and waste."
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg is investigating to see if CPRIT grants given to companies followed state statute protocol. The Public Integrity Unit inside the DA's office has legislative authority to investigate and prosecute state agencies when allegations of official misconduct and misappropriated funded arise.
"We have received several complaints that the grant process is flawed," she said. "My Public Integrity Unit, the staff there, is going to look at whether or not the conduct of staff there or others was criminal in any way."
Andrew Wheat also makes a living investigating political and corporate corruption. His organization, Texans for Public Justice, wrote letter of complaint to Lehmberg’s office which stated an $11 million grant from CPRIT to Peloton Therapeutics did not follow the proper vetting process.
"The more that comes out about it, the more the situation stinks," Wheat said. "This particular, politically connected company totally circumvented the review
An internal CPRIT report shows Peloton Therapeutics “had no management team," and that the company was, "a start-up."
CPRIT records also show the $11-million Peloton grant is the institutes first "Company Commercialization" award. Further, in 2010, Peloton had not filled out a 'Request for Application' needed to begin the grant review process.
According to other media reports, former chief commercialization officer Jerald Cobbs is accused of improperly pushing forward the $11 million deal for Peloton.
A CPRIT oversight committee cemented the grant in June of 2010.
Before the Public Integrity Unit could examine that allegation, emails sent at the time the grant was under consideration disappeared.
"According to the Cancer Research Institute, those emails simply have vanished,"
Phone calls YNN made to CPRIT requesting information were not returned. Lehmberg wants to get a hold of them too.
"We'll start with staff and taking witness statements and looking at the process,” Lehmberg said. “I'm very interested at recovering the emails that seems to be missing."
Emails which Wheat says will show direct political ties from grant recipient Peloton, to the highest offices inside the State Capitol.
The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is governed by an 11-member Oversight Committee, which includes Attorney General Greg Abbott and State Comptroller Susan Combs.
The nine other committee members are appointed by Gov. Perry, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and the Speaker of the Texas House.
Gov. Rick Perry's office responded to news of the investigation. His deputy press secretary said:
"Gov. Perry believes that Texans deserve to know how their taxpayer dollars are being used and supports every appropriate measure to ensure that the agency remains efficient and transparent."