By JAMES DREW
Published: 21 December 2012 10:35 PM
AUSTIN — Officials say they have recovered several emails about an $11 million grant to a Dallas biotechnology firm that was approved without the required business or scientific review by Texas’ troubled cancer-fighting agency.
The announcement was made Friday after the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, appointed Wayne Roberts, a former budget director for Gov. Rick Perry, as the agency’s new interim executive director.
Since the creation of CPRIT, Perry has had three appointments to the 11-member committee that oversees the agency. Roberts replaces Bill Gimson, who stepped down last week.
Jimmy Mansour, chairman of CPRIT’s Oversight Committee, said the content of the recovered emails could not be released because of investigations by the Travis County district attorney’s office and the Texas attorney general’s office.
Earlier this month, CPRIT said that Dr. Alfred Gilman, the agency’s chief scientific officer, and Jerald “Jerry” Cobbs, the former chief commercialization officer, exchanged emails in 2010 about a proposal from Peloton Therapeutics to seek CPRIT funds. In a Dec. 7 report, the agency said: “None of these emails are currently available,” but it declined to elaborate.
Cobbs improperly placed the Peloton grant on the June 2010 agenda of the Oversight Committee, CPRIT has said.
The attorney general’s office said earlier this month it would work to recover the emails. A spokesman for Attorney General Greg Abbott declined to comment Friday.
Also on Friday, CPRIT notified The Dallas Morning News that, at the request of the Travis County district attorney’s office, it would not release public records, including emails, about the award to Peloton. The district attorney’s office said it received copies of the records Thursday.
The newspaper made requests to inspect the records under the Texas Public Information Act and arranged to inspect them Friday.
CPRIT is asking the attorney general’s office to rule that the information not be disclosed until the investigation is completed. Abbott is a member of CPRIT’s Oversight Committee but sends a proxy to the meetings.
Gregg Cox, director of the Travis County district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, said his office made the request because release of the records could influence what key witnesses tell investigators. He declined to offer details.
Gilman said he couldn’t comment because he had not seen the emails. Cobbs couldn’t be reached for comment.
The appointment of an interim executive director came only 10 days after Gimson announced his resignation. Roberts said a member of Perry’s staff — whom he declined to name — approached him about taking the job.
Roberts worked in Perry’s office until he became associate vice president for public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 2008. He said he is taking an indefinite leave of absence from that job.
In Perry’s office, Roberts said he “helped prepare and write legislation” creating the Emerging Technology Fund, one of Perry’s signature economic development programs. Roberts said he was not involved in running the program.
The News reported in 2010 that more than $16 million from the technology fund had been awarded to companies with investors or officers who were large campaign donors to Perry.
Roberts also worked for Perry as a senior fiscal adviser, senior adviser for higher education and assistant director of budget and planning. In 2009, Perry appointed Roberts to the State Pension Review Board, which oversees Texas public retirement systems.
Roberts said he could act independently to make changes at CPRIT. “When I worked for Mr. Perry, I was rather forceful in making my recommendations on many issues. Some were taken. Some weren’t. I never hesitated to express my thoughts or concerns about something,” he said.
On Friday, CPRIT also announced that Billy Hamilton, former chief deputy comptroller of public accounts, has agreed to serve as a senior adviser to the agency’s Oversight Committee.
Hamilton said he would resign as a member of the board of managers of Kalon Biotherapeutics, a company that was awarded a grant that came under question. The firm was started by the Texas A&M University System in 2011. Hamilton said he was not an investor.
Last March, Gilman asked Mansour and Gimson why CPRIT’s reviewers were recommending a grant to Kalon. Gilman characterized the score that Kalon received from reviewers as “rather average” and recommended that Kalon not receive an award of nearly $8 million.
Gimson, however, said he was not inclined to “second guess” the reviewers. The Oversight Committee ratified the award to Kalon last March.
Mansour said he believes Roberts and Hamilton will help restore confidence in CPRIT. “Wayne and Billy are seasoned professionals with long records of successful management in the Texas state government,” said Mansour, a major Republican campaign donor who was appointed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to the Oversight Committee.
Glenn Smith, director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas Political Action Committee, said based on the choices of Roberts and Hamilton, “it’s very clear CPRIT wants to go more and more in the venture capital direction and less and less in the research direction.”
Roberts said he anticipates he will hold the interim job until the end of the legislative session. Mansour said he would be paid based on an annual salary of $212,000.
TIMELINE: Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas
2007: The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas is approved by voters as a 10-year, $3 billion program to fight cancer.
May 2012: Dr. Alfred Gilman, CPRIT’s chief scientific officer, announces his resignation, effective in October. Gilman criticizes a $20 million grant for a Houston project that did not receive review by science experts.
October: Dozens of science reviewers also resign, stating concerns that politics has infected the agency.
Nov. 18: The Dallas Morning News reports that companies run by Dallas businessman David Shanahan got $12.8 million in CPRIT grants after Shanahan and his associates gave $90,000 to the campaigns of Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Nov. 29: CPRIT discloses that an $11 million award to Peloton Therapeutics, a company on the campus of UT Southwestern Medical Center, did not receive required commercial or scientific review.
Nov. 30: Two legislators who wrote the law that created CPRIT demand that the agency explain how the Peloton grant occurred.
Dec. 5: CPRIT says its investigation into the Peloton grant is hampered by some apparently missing emails between Gilman and the agency’s former chief commercialization officer.
Dec. 10: The Texas attorney general’s office says it will investigate the Peloton grant.
Dec. 11: The resignation of executive director Bill Gimson becomes public. The Travis County district attorney’s office confirms a criminal investigation into CPRIT.
Dec. 19: Perry, Dewhurst and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus call for a moratorium on further grants from CPRIT until the agency fully addresses concerns. The agency agrees to halt new awards. Separately, two state senators call for new laws to fix problems at the agency.