AUSTIN (AP) — Frustrated lawmakers heaped fresh criticism Tuesday on a troubled $3 billion cancer-fighting agency in Texas over a closely linked nonprofit that raised salary sweeteners for top public officials and is now under investigation by the state attorney general's office.
The new round of admonishment is another image setback for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, known as CPRIT, and a poorly timed one — the rebuilding agency is running out of time at the Legislature to fight for new funding and potentially survival.
But in a twist, CPRIT joined lawmakers this time in slinging blame at a unified target: a private foundation that raised roughly $4 million for CPRIT and is now going out of business. Agency leaders said they were blindsided when the CPRIT Foundation told them last week how the nonprofit would close and re-brand under a different mission.
"I was shocked that this was being told to us as an afterthought," said Kristen Doyle, the general counsel of CPRIT.
Doyle told the House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations that foundation executives "did not appear, to me, that they had made any thoughts" about what would happen to the money raised for CPRIT. Wayne Roberts, interim executive of CPRIT, reported the foundation's plans to the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
State investigators almost immediately opened an investigation and fired off a strongly worded letter to the CPRIT Foundation. It stated "serious legal concerns" about plans to re-launch the foundation as the Texas Cancer Coalition without first seeking authorization from lawmakers.
"There seems to be a continuation of incompetence in the governance of this money in public funds and mission," said Republican state Rep. Charles Perry during more than three hours of often intense questioning foundation and agency executives. "There seems to be a deliberate, almost, attempt to continue down a road of a lack of transparency."
Jennifer Stevens, executive director of the CPRIT Foundation, said the viability of the nonprofit was no longer possible given the troubles surrounding the state agency. Those include a separate civil investigation by the state attorney general's office, a criminal investigation by Travis County public corruption prosecutors and state lawmakers putting the agency under a spending moratorium.
Problems for CPRIT snowballed last year, none more serious than the discovery that an $11 million award to a private company in Dallas entirely bypassed the state's review process. A scathing report from the state auditor earlier this year alleged widespread failings at CPRIT involving transparency, accountability and decision-making.
When the Texas House votes on a new two-year state budget this week, the proposal includes no new research money for CPRIT — a sign that lawmakers are still not sold the agency is back on the right track.
The CPRIT Foundation has troubled lawmakers over the fact that the oversight boards of both the agency and nonprofit were staffed by the same members. So did the mission of the foundation to raise money to supplement the salaries of CPRIT's executive director and chief scientific officer, which was defended as necessary to recruit top-notch talent given the restraints of state salaries.
Stevens said the perceptions of conflicts of interest were too much to overcome.
"You just create this situation where you're wrapped up in this craziness. It just doesn't work," Stevens said.
The foundation is expected to completely cease operations by the end of May. It will then go forward as the Texas Cancer Coalition without any funds, said Marc Palazzo, a foundation spokesman.
The nonprofit estimates an ending balance of about $285,000 after paying off remaining debts. That includes about $136,000 to supplement the state salary of Margaret Kripke, the agency's new chief scientific officer. Her predecessor, a Nobel laureate who resigned last year, made more than $700,000.
Stevens said the foundation is trying to find the best way to hand over the remaining funds solicited by donors to the state-run CPRIT.
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A man is dead after being hit by several vehicles in the eastbound lane of Highway 71 Saturday night.
APD is responding to a 25 vehicle accident near the 5400 block of Ed Bluestein near Thurgood Ave.
A representative at the Fayette County Sheriff's office said that Fayette County is effectively shut down due to icy conditions.
The Austin City Council is set to vote Thursday on design changes for the Auditorium Shores Dog Park.
Bryce Petty threw touchdown passes on the first two drives of the second half for No. 9 Baylor and the Bears won their first Big 12 title and a Fiesta Bowl berth with a 30-10 victory over No. 23 Texas on Saturday.
Late Saturday night into early Sunday morning, a light band of freezing drizzle traversed the I-35 corridor eastward. With sub-freezing temperatures, even the light precipitation created major problems.