Audit blasts Texas cancer agency over transparency

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A troubled $3 billion cancer-fighting agency in Texas under criminal investigation must address "significant issues" with accountability and transparency, according to a critical state audit obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

Auditors found that the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas could not produce records surrounding several lucrative taxpayer-funded grants. They also said the agency's former executive director recommended three projects for funding even though scientific peer review councils failed to endorse the projects. That trio of applicants wound up receiving more than $56 million combined, according to the State Auditor's Office.

"By not ensuring that all grant applications are properly evaluated and documented, CPRIT weakens its ability to ensure that its award decisions best align with the agency's mission," the report said.

State auditors had not yet officially released the 100-page report before copies began to trickle out Monday. But the audit had been eagerly anticipated by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have lined up to blast the beleaguered agency in recent weeks and demand sweeping reforms.

The audit is the latest black eye for CPRIT, which has been in upheaval for much of the past year. The agency was a darling of the scientific community and some of the nation's biggest advocacy groups after launching in 2009 as an unprecedented cancer-fighting effort on the state level. The agency oversees the nation's second-largest pot of cancer research dollars, next to only the federal National Institutes of health.

That money is now frozen, as CPRIT is under a moratorium following revelations of improperly awarded grants that have drawn the attention of Texas prosecutors. The agency's top three executives have all resigned in the past nine months.

Among the new revelations in Monday's report was CPRIT failing to produce documentation from scientific peer reviewers in support of a $25 million statewide clinical trial network — the largest single award in the agency's history.

The Clinical Trials Network of Texas also did not receive matching funds from other investors as required, auditors said. The same was true of at the time the agency awarded $11 million to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, which also never had its funding application independently reviewed.

CPRIT is also beset by appearances of conflicts of interest. Auditors found that former executive director Bill Gimson, former chief scientific officer Alfred Gilman and two members of the commercialization review council had "business and professional relationships" with grant recipients.

CPRIT management generally agreed with the recommendations in this report, auditors said.

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

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