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[December 21, 2012]
Cancer agency turns over missing grant emails to prosecutors
Dec 21, 2012 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Missing emails involving an $11 million grant improperly awarded by the state's cancer agency to a Dallas startup have been found and turned over to Travis County prosecutors, state officials announced Friday.
Officials with the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas -- commonly known as CPRIT -- made the announcement following Friday's meeting, where the agency's oversight committee officially accepted the resignation of Bill Gimson, the agency's executive director.
CPRIT also hired two longtime Capitol fixtures, Wayne Roberts and Billy Hamilton, to help navigate two investigations, a state audit and a skeptical Legislature looking to fix the agency.
The emails involved a grant given to Peloton Therapeutics two years ago. The grant was awarded without the required reviews by scientific and business experts.
Peloton was a startup with only a business plan when CPRIT's oversight committee approved its $11 million grant. More than $3 million has been disbursed to the Dallas-based company.
The emails included exchanges between Alfred Gilman, the agency's chief science officer, and Jerry Cobbs, the agency's commercialization officer, as well as Robert Ulrich, who led the agency's commercialization review panel in 2010.
Gilman and Cobbs resigned in the wake of the discovery that Cobbs put the Peloton grant on the agenda of the agency's 11-member oversight committee, which includes appointees of Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus.
Peloton was to commercialize research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, where Gilman worked before retiring and taking a $700,000-a-year job as CPRIT's chief science officer.
Austin businessman Jimmy Mansour, chairman of the cancer agency's oversight committee, didn't release the emails to the public Friday.
"I don't want to comment too much because the investigation is ongoing," said Mansour after confirming that several emails were recovered.
The agency's newly hired compliance officer, Patricia Vojack, discovered the problem with the Peloton grant in September after Gimson asked her to review the agency's grants to companies seeking to commercialize cancer research.
Gimson didn't notify the agency's oversight committee about the problem for several weeks.
Instead he had the company resubmit its application to the agency. But news of the problems with the grant leaked before it was brought back before the agency's oversight committee for reconsideration.
As part of her review, Vojack interviewed Gilman and Cobbs, but she reported that the emails between the two men couldn't be found.
The state attorney general's office assigned its computer forensics unit to recover electronic files at the cancer agency.
Mansour said he was told the emails were recovered Thursday.
With the agency's top staff gone, the oversight committee moved quickly Friday to hire Roberts as interim executive director and Hamilton as a consultant.
Roberts spent 18 years at the Legislative Budget Board, as well as serving in posts in the lieutenant governor's and governor's offices.
He said someone in the governor's office contacted him about taking the interim job, which will pay $212,000 a year.
Roberts, who retired from state government, said he is taking a leave from his current post with the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston.
"I never harbored an ambition to be executive director of this agency," Roberts said. "But if I can help out, why not " Hamilton is a Capitol consultant who retired from state government after serving as chief deputy comptroller.
"Both of these men are well-known and respected around our state," Mansour said.
Roberts said it remains uncertain what will happen to $85 million in grants that were approved Dec. 5 but without their contracts being finalized.
This week, Perry, Dewhurst and Straus ordered that no new grants be approved pending reforms by the Legislature. In their letter, the leaders said the moratorium should not affect current grants, but there remains confusion whether that includes the $85 million in recent grants. Perry, Dewhurst and Straus are expected to clarify whether the moratorium covers those grants or not.
Five of those 72 grants, totaling about $4.4 million, are designated for cancer projects at the University of Texas at Austin.
___ (c)2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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