AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A foundation that boosts executive salaries at Texas' troubled $3 billion cancer-fighting effort defended to critical lawmakers Thursday a policy that keeps donors confidential while being lectured over appearances of pay-to-play politics.
Facing pointed and occasionally combative questions from state budget-writers, officials with the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas appeared before a public panel for the first time since prosecutors announced a criminal probe into the beleaguered agency and Gov. Rick Perry called for a moratorium on new awards.
Not all members of the influential House Appropriations Committee were happy with who showed up to testify. Absent were the three top agency executives who have resigned in the past eight months: Executive Director Bill Gimson, Chief Commercialization Officer Jerry Cobbs and Chief Scientific Officer Alfred Gilman.
All three are principal players surrounding $11 million in taxpayer funds that were awarded in 2010 to a private startup despite the project bypassing an independent review. Republican Jim Pitts, chairman of the House committee, left the door open to the agency's former leadership being hauled in front of lawmakers as soon as January.
That left Barbara Canales, vice president of the nonprofit CPRIT Foundation and a member of the agency's governing board, answering recurring and tough questions about the role of the nonprofit arm. One of the foundation's chief purposes is to supplement the salaries of top institute executives, including Gimson, whose annual salary was $300,000.
The foundation has denied media requests to make its donor list public.
"We have a balancing act to weigh here as board members, and to protect the privacy of our donors so they're not unfairly solicited," Canales said.
Rules prohibit donors from being awarded institute grants, Canales and CPRIT officials testified. But Democrat Rep. Sylvester Turner — who said, "We want an organization with integrity, not a slush fund" — and other lawmakers pressed for certainty that foundation donors were not connected to grant winners.
"What I can tell you is: To the best of my knowledge, it is not our policy to accept donors who are also grant" recipients, Canales said.
Republican Rep. Myra Crownover and other board member said the mere appearance was problematic.
"The pay-to-play potential — maybe there should be more division," Crownover said.
The foundation has raised around $700,000 in each the last two years, according to Canales.
Thursday's hearing came a day after Perry and other state leaders called for a moratorium on new grants until confidence is restored in a once-celebrated agency that has been thrown into upheaval in just three years. The institute controls the nation's second-largest pot of cancer research dollars, behind the National Institutes of Health.
The federal department's cancer-research arm, the National Cancer Institute, also has said it is reviewing the troubles surrounding the Texas agency.
Turmoil has beset the Texas agency practically all year, but prosecutors didn't take notice until the revelation of an $11 million award to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics that was approved without an independent review. Gimson has chalked up the award as an honest mistake and has said that, to his knowledge, no one at the agency personally profited from the award.
Peloton received its funding in 2010. Lawmakers asked agency officials whether any of its leadership had known for the last two years that Peloton's proposal had never been scrutinized.
"I can't look into the mind of employees," said Kristen Doyle, the agency's general counsel. "But there are investigations that are going to answer those questions,"
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