Prosecutors curb $3B Texas cancer agency testimony

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Associated Press

Posted on February 6, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 7 at 3:02 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Prosecutors convinced state lawmakers Wednesday to not question two former executives from Texas' troubled cancer research institute, saying such testimony could interfere with their investigation into problems at the $3 billion institute.

Bill Gimson, who was the executive director of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and Nobel laureate Alfred Gilman, who was its chief scientific officer, had agreed to appear Wednesday before the state House Appropriations Committee. It would have been the first time they had had to answer questions publicly about the matter since they resigned last year amid mounting problems at the agency.

Neither Gimson nor Gilman has been accused of any wrongdoing, but Gregg Cox, who runs the Travis County district attorney's public corruption unit, said he didn't want to jeopardize the investigation. He said witnesses can't be prosecuted if they incriminate themselves while being forced to answer lawmaker questions.

"That's very concerning to have witnesses answering something about something we're investigating, when that's a possible outcome," Cox said.

State auditors have identified $56.3 million in projects the institute has funded since its 2009 inception that weren't endorsed by peer-review councils. Among them was an $11 million grant to a Dallas-based startup that completely avoided the review process and triggered the investigation. Prosecutors haven't indicated when they might present their findings.

Lawmakers have vowed impose greater oversight of the beleaguered agency known as CPRIT, and there are several bills pending that would change how the institute operates. Lawmakers haven't set aside funding for the institute in the next budget yet, but there haven't been any serious calls to abolish it entirely.

While questioning the state auditors about the institute's spending Wednesday, committee members were particularly interested in a failed $25 million clinical trial network for cancer patients that the institute funded. Those behind the network spent more than $100,000 in state funds on office furniture.

CPRIT also approved the project — the largest award in the agency's history — even though the trial network never obtained matching funds from outside investors, as was required under the agency's rules.

"This just wasn't any kind of furniture. This was nice, nice furniture that we paid for," said Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner, who also questioned whether the company would have even existed without the state funding.

Lawmakers expressed shock that the institute paid scientific peer reviewers $2,000 a day to scrutinize proposals, when auditors said the National Cancer Institute pays peer reviewers no more than $200 a day. Even worse, they said, was that the institute ignored the reviewers' unflattering appraisal of the proposed project and approved the network anyway.

"We're paying pretty good money to them. What you're telling me is we're not even listening to them in some cases," Republican state Rep. John Otto said.

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Follow Paul J. Weber at www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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