The CPRIT One: Failing the Smell Test


Leonard Zwelling

Both the Houston Chronicle and the on-line version of
the NY Times via Kindle (by-line Associated Press) have reported on December 7 that
the inquiry into the misdeeds that hampered CPRIT’s progress and held up the
awarding of grants has resulted in a single indictment. Jerry Cobbs, a former
MD Anderson employee and the man with the title of Chief Commercialization
Officer at CPRIT during the turmoil, is the only person criminally charged. He
has been accused of  “intent to defraud”.
Apparently, Mr. Cobbs did not supply the Oversight Board of CPRIT correct
information in their awarding of an $11,000,000 grant to a Dallas company
called Peloton.

The Burnt Orange report on-line displayed a bit more
skepticism about the reports of a single indictment:

share the skepticism expressed in this web posting.

As the
Ackerman and Rauf piece in the Chronicle notes, this grant was only part of the
$56M awarded in an “unconventional” fashion by CPRIT with Oversight Board
approval. Current Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott was
to be a presence on this board but never showed up for meetings. His surrogate
was reported to have appeared less than half of the time the board met.
Supposedly, the grand jury that found only Cobbs culpable of wrong-doing heard
from many of the other significant players in the CPRIT drama including Houston
businessman and former Oversight Board member Charles Tate and former CPRIT
Executive Director Bill Gimson. Yet, all the grand jury could muster was a
charge against Cobbs of fraud.

This does not even come close to passing
the smell test.

Here are some reasons why:

We have heard
many times that the $20M awarded to MD Anderson came after no local review of
the application by the Provost’s office and was awarded to the wife of the
current MD Anderson president. How did that happen without any CPRIT collaborators
in Austin? Who were they?

Therapeutics was founded by prominent scientist Steve McKnight the chair of
biochemistry at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Southwestern was also
the home institution of Dr. Al Gilman, the Nobel laureate and former Chief
Scientific Officer of CPRIT whose resignation started the CPRIT-Watergate-like
unraveling. Is there no one else in this web beside Cobbs worthy of naming? (The
award of the CPRIT money to Peloton is still prominently touted on Peloton’s
web site).

It was Bill
Gimson who was responsible for placing grant applications deemed ready for
funding before the Oversight Board. He had no fiduciary responsibility here at

What about all
those Oversight Board members giving final approval for the award of $56M of
the taxpayers’ dollars? Didn’t they have any role in this?

Does anyone
really believe that a potential $3B state agency could fall apart because of
the actions of only one person?

The indictment of a single individual (I have named
him the CPRIT 1) in the mess that made the launch of CPRIT and the launch of equal examples of government ineptitude begs credulity.

It is very hard to believe that the mess that CPRIT
became would result in only a single suspicion of criminal activity and that
everyone else behaved properly.

If this is the best the state investigation can
muster, perhaps the federal government needs to investigate.

I assume the Travis County investigators report to the
Attorney General in some fashion. Since the Attorney General is a key player in
this drama having been on the Oversight Board (whether he showed up or not),
perhaps a state agency is not the best choice to look into allegations of
wrong-doing at a state agency.

In his wisdom, Dr. Gilman chose members of the
scientific community from outside Texas to review the CPRIT grant applications
for merit thus freeing them from any accusations of conflict of interest. Now
that this system lies in ruins and a new one is about to be launched, perhaps
now is the time to get independent eyes on what transpired since 2009 at CPRIT
to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Or isn’t already happening again.

Leonard Zwelling