Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

CPRIT

Saturday mini-link roundup

Three stories you should read that I didn’t have time to devote a full post to:

AusChron: Abbott’s abject CPRIT failures

Still not Greg Abbott

The scandal broke after letters between the agency’s chief science officer, Nobel laureate Dr. Alfred Gilman, and CPRIT’s Chief Commercialization Officer Jerry Cobbs were released, in which Gilman repeatedly questioned the ethics of multiple grants, while Cobbs shot down his criticisms. Gilman finally resigned in protest over $20 million to local research incubator groups, and he was quickly followed by a slew of top-ranked researchers from bodies including the Harvard and Stanford medical schools, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. By contrast, Cobbs is currently under indictment in Travis County for the first-degree felony of securing execution of a document by deception, regarding the granting of $11 million to Peloton Therapeutics Inc. In January 2013, CPRIT was subject to a damning report by Texas State Auditor John Keel, advising that it revamp every stage of the grant process, from evaluation to research progress, after which lawmakers effectively shut it down, and opened back up with increased controls and oversight.

Arguably, oversight was what was missing in the first place. It was supposed to be there, and Abbott was supposed to be providing it. From its inception, CPRIT had an oversight committee, which included both the attorney general and Comptroller Susan Combs. However, out of 23 committee meetings between June 23, 2008, and Feb 25, 2013, Abbott attended exactly zero. Abbott’s campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch has since said that he removed himself, rather than face conflicts of interest. However, rather than stepping down completely, he sent designees from his office: Then-Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Andrew Weber attended the first meeting, then the task was handed over to Deputy Attorney General for Government and External Affairs Jay Dyer, who would himself miss several meetings in the following four years. Hopefully, they were giving Abbott extensive notes, because he did not seem to be that inquisitive. The Dallas Morning News found that in his five years on the committee, Abbott sent a grand total of nine emails to “key state officials” on CPRIT’s problems.

So what was keeping Abbott so distracted? Democratic pressure group the Lone Star Project went through Abbott’s diary and compared his calendar with the committee’s schedule, and found that on 10 of the 23 meeting days, he had no official events booked. And what kept him busy on the other 13? A lot of time with the press. He crammed 20 interviews and briefings into those days. He even skipped meetings at the height of the public scandal, after the release of the Cobbs-Gilman emails. On Oct. 24, 2012 (less than two weeks after some of the nation’s leading cancer researchers had severed all ties with the agency in protest over its mismanagement and their concerns of nepotism in the incubator grant), both Abbott and Dyer were absent, even though the top item on the agenda was the discussion of hiring a replacement for Gilman. Instead, the state’s top attorney was busy on Fox News ginning up a false controversy about international elections monitors visiting Texas to observe the Democratic process.

The story is related to Wendy Davis’ ongoing attacks against Abbott for his manifest failure to do his job on CPRIT. The facts of this sorry story are so unfavorable to Abbott that I have to think they’ll do some real damage to him. That’s my heart talking more than my brain, but we’ll see.

Texas Observer: Millennial Hispanics are way more secular than their ancestors

Pew’s survey of more than 5,000 Hispanics nationwide shows that an increasing number of Latinos are leaving Catholicism, their childhood faith. Just 55 percent of those surveyed identify themselves as Catholic, down from 67 percent in the previous comprehensive study in 2006. Now, nearly a quarter of all Hispanics say they are former Catholics. Overall, non-Catholics are nearly evenly divided between evangelical Protestants (16 percent) and those who profess no religious affiliation (18 percent). Mainline Protestants and other Christians round out the remaining 8 percent.

The conversion of some Catholics to evangelicals holds out hope for the GOP. Consider the study’s findings on abortion. Overall, Hispanics tend to be conservative on this issue. Fifty-three percent say that abortion should be completely or mostly illegal, with just 40 percent in favor of abortion rights—a flip of the 40/54 percent split among Americans generally. With Hispanic evangelicals, 70 percent are in favor of making abortion illegal. That’s even more than white (non-Hispanic) evangelicals. Even so, these evangelical Hispanics still mostly identify as Democrats (48 percent vs. 30 percent support for the GOP). That’s progress for Republicans since, overall, Hispanics identify as Democrats 56/21 percent.

But this is little more than a consolation prize when contrasted with how religiously unaffiliated Hispanics are changing the landscape. The unaffiliated, also known as “nones,” include those who think of themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” and those who are neither spiritual nor religious. They are far more pro-choice than Hispanics overall, even more so than the general public. They are also staunchly Democratic, overwhelming Republicans by 4-to-1.

According to the study, the bulk of the “nones” are young. What’s going on with the under-30 crowd? These are millennials, a generation significantly detached from institutions, making its presence felt. In 2010, unaffiliated Hispanics made up 14 percent of the 18-29 category. In 2013, as millennials rapidly came to dominate and define that age group, the unaffiliated more than doubled, rising to 31 percent of the cohort.

Hispanic millennials are a demographic tidal wave, the dominant ethnicity among millennials. Some 800,000 underage Hispanics turn voting age every year. They are the first generation that is mostly U.S.-born and identify closely with their non-Hispanic contemporaries. Their turn toward being “nones” closely matches the national trend, according to a separate Pew study. As the remaining millennial Hispanics come of age over the next decade, “nones” could wipe out whatever modest gains the GOP now enjoys with evangelical Hispanics.

Getting them to turn out, that’s the challenge for Democrats, especially this year. And if they do get engaged and involved in proportion to their numbers, expect the potential for change within the Democratic Party to be at least as big as the potential for change in Texas. Which, to be clear, I welcome.

Texas Election Law Blog: An under the radar assault on voting rights

So … let’s recap. By law, (see Section 11.001, Texas Election Code) you are citizen of Texas as soon as you permanently reside in Texas. As soon as you permanently reside in Texas, you qualify to vote and can apply for a voter registration certificate. But you can’t use a voter registration certificate by itself to vote. To vote, you need a picture I.D. issued by the Department of Public Safety. But to get a picture I.D., you need to prove that you’ve been domiciled in Texas for at least 30 days. (You’ll also need to prove your citizenship and identity, which, as I have described before, is another sort of fresh hell, but enough about that).

But to prove that you’ve been domiciled in Texas for at least 30 days, you’ll either have to present the documentary proof of your financial respectability (in the form of bank statements, utility bills, and paychecks), or you’ll have to fall back on the mercy of the modern poor house or work farm, getting someone else in a position of paternal responsibility to vouch for you as not being entirely transient and rootless.

The State of Texas (a state whose independence was precipitated by the actions of transient adventurers and freebooters) certainly seems to have put away the “welcome” mat once and for all.

This is the result of a change made to the Transportation Code in 2009, which two years later when voter ID passed combined to put an extra burden on would-be voters. It’s yet another reason why the voter ID law needs to be declared unconstitutional.

Go check them all out, they’re worth your time.

Davis steps up attacks on Abbott over CPRIT

Progress Texas gets the ball rolling.

Still not Greg Abbott

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) was supposed to provide funding for cancer research. But soon after its implementation, the multi-billion dollar entity was awarding grants to donors of Rick Perry and Greg Abbott without the proper review. Scientists resigned in protest, and an investigation into the activities of the fund has since resulted in a felony indictment.

Greg Abbott, as the state’s Attorney General, was tasked with serving as a watchdog for this cancer research fund. But he never attended a board meeting – and took no action when cancer research dollars were funneled to his donors.

In a video released by the Progress Texas PAC, cancer survivors share their thoughts of betrayal on this matter. Take a moment and watch the video and then share it with your networks.

It’s unclear if Abbott was ok with cancer research fund activities, but it is clear that he never showed up to see for himself.

See here and here for the background on this. Here’s the video:

Trail Blazers neatly sums up the state of play.

After The Dallas Morning News first broke stories raising questions about funding problems, Abbott’s office announced it would investigate what went wrong at the Cancer Prevention and Research Fund. That announcement put Abbott in the position of investigating an agency over which his office already had oversight. That means the attorney general potentially is looking into the behavior of board members who are his campaign donors. Abbott says he sees no problems with these arrangements.

Yes, I’m sure he’ll be as diligent and thorough in his investigation as Chris Christie was about Bridgegate. Well, once he gets around to doing that investigation, anyway.

Shortly after CPRIT unraveled in 2012, Abbott announced his intention to open a civil investigation into the agency, even though Abbott would be investigating his own donors. That was a year and a half ago—since then, a criminal investigation by the Travis County DA’s office resulted in a felony indictment for one senior CPRIT official.

As for Abbott’s investigation? It’s unclear where that stands—if it’s still ongoing, or if it was quietly dropped sometime in the last 19 months. The Observer asked the AG’s office for an update Monday afternoon—we’ll update when we hear back.

But don’t worry, I’m sure ethics ninja Ken Paxton will get right on it after he’s elected.

Abbott’s CPRIT problem

Expect to hear a lot about this.

A Travis County grand jury has indicted Jerry Cobbs, a former high-ranking official with the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, on charges that he unlawfully secured the execution of an $11 million grant for Peloton Therapeutics, a Dallas-based biotechnology firm.

The Travis County Public Integrity Unit opened an investigation into former CPRIT officials shortly after the CPRIT Oversight Committee disclosed in November 2012 that the institute had awarded that grant without proper scientific review.

Cobbs served as the institute’s chief commercialization officer for three years, before resigning that month. In that role, he was responsible for presenting the Peloton grant to the Oversight Board for approval. Given the amount of the grant, and the allegations that Cobbs failed to disclose that it had not gone through the required review process, he is being charged with a first-degree felony punishable by five to 99 years in jail and up to a $10,000 fine. He turned himself in this morning and was released on an $85,000 bond, according to the Public Integrity Unit’s Gregg Cox.

Glenn Smith, director of the liberal Progress Texas PAC and filer of the criminal complaint against CPRIT, released a statement saying that “those responsible for the corruption at CPRIT are being brought to justice.” He said questions remain about the members of the Oversight Board responsible for approving the grant — including GOP gubernatorial candidate and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and outgoing Comptroller Susan Combs.

“The indictment of a former CPRIT official confirms that Greg Abbott has betrayed Texas taxpayers by failing to show up to even one CPRIT oversight board meeting,” state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, said in a statement. “Greg Abbott has yet to fully explain why he failed in his basic oversight responsibilities to Texas taxpayers.”

More from Texas Politics.

Democrats are using Friday’s announcement that Travis County prosecutors are pursuing felony charges in their now-concluded CPRIT investigation to blast Republican gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott, who sat on the board of the troubled state cancer agency.

It’s not the first time that Abbott’s role in failing to maintain a critical eye on the state cancer agency has surfaced. But Friday’s news that Jerry Cobbs, a former top official of the state cancer agency, had been indicted provided fresh attack fodder for Abbott’s opponents in the middle of a heated gubernatorial race.

[…]

Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Will Hailer also pounced on Friday’s news.

“The elephant that remains in the room is how Attorney General Abbott sat on the CPRIT board and was complicit as these illegal acts took place,” said Hailer. “Abbott has proven his tendency to avoid clear statements and clarification about his work and positions. But Texans deserve to know how such corruption occurred as Greg Abbott was supposed to oversee the process. It is time for answers.”

See here for some background. Abbott is vulnerable on two fronts here. One is that he basically never attended CPRIT board meetings, thus falling down on the oversight job. He has some excuses but that’s really all they are, and they don’t sound so good in the context of all the problems CPRIT has had, problems that might have been averted if those that were responsible for overseeing its actions had actually done their jobs. On a more general note, this is another way to tie Abbott to Rick Perry and his reign of cronyism. Abbott has been Perry’s right hand man all along, and despite his attempts to put some space between himself and Perry on a few issues, the fact is that Abbott would represent very little change from Perry. Part of Wendy Davis’ job is to convince people that if they’d had enough of Perry, swapping him out for Abbott isn’t going to make much difference. Fortunately for her, Abbott is helping her make that case. Progress Texas and PDiddie have more.

Abbott and CPRIT

From the Things Greg Abbott Should Have Been Doing Instead Of Filing All Those Lawsuits Against The Obama Administration, But Didn’t Do department.

Still not Greg Abbott

In the more than four years he served on the state cancer agency’s governing board, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott exercised no oversight as the agency made misstep after misstep in awarding tens of millions of dollars to commercial interests.

The state’s top lawyer and watchdog instead appointed one of his deputies, who missed about a third of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Oversight Committee meetings, and, by all accounts, was not much of a presence in the agency’s questionable decision-making.

“It turns out that Abbott sitting on the oversight board was a green light rather than a caution sign,” wrote Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee. “Businesses backed by Abbott contributors – many of whom are partisan Republicans – have received large grants and contracts from CPRIT without fear of any oversight at all.”

The attorney general’s minimalist scrutiny of the cancer institute did not draw much attention when the Legislature lit into the agency during the regular session, but now that he is running for governor it is becoming a significant campaign issue.

“It is surprising to me that someone who is the attorney general would not attend board meetings of a fund that involves $3 billion in taxpayer dollars,” said Tom Pauken, who is vying with Abbott for the nomination for governor in next spring’s Republican primary.

Abbott’s role at the cancer agency has raised additional questions because of the investigation his office is conducting into the agency’s scandals. Critics question how he can objectively investigate alleged conflicts of interest and favoritism at the agency after his office did nothing to stop it. They also ask how he can look into possible impropriety involving donors that made contributions to the agency and later received grants when some of those donors also have given to Abbott and figure to be tapped again as his gubernatorial campaign kicks into gear.

[…]

A review of Abbott’s correspondence while his office was on the oversight board, obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, found nothing expressing concern about the agency.

“It’s nice to talk about suing Obama all of the time, but the attorney general has other duties,” Pauken said. “When there’s so much taxpayer money on the table, it is surprising that the attorney general would be asleep at the switch.”

[Abbott’s chief communications officer Jerry] Strickland dismissed criticism of the office’s lack of oversight as political.

“Given the failure of CPRIT staff to follow procedure and properly inform the Oversight Committee, it would have been impossible for any designee to fully brief the attorney general about what was happening because they were left in the dark about critical decisions and mistakes along the way,” Strickland wrote. “Presumably, that’s also why none of the oversight committee members appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor or the Speaker raised issues about the grants. Despite their varied experiences and expertise, they simply were not provided with information that would have raised red flags.”

That has not stopped critics from noting that some of the agency’s most questionable grants went to companies affiliated with some of Abbott’s major donors.

Since 2001, James Leininger has donated $289,000 to Abbott, campaign finance records show, and Peter O’Donnell has contributed $130,000 during the same time period. Some political activists question these donations, noting that Leininger’s company, Caliber Biotherapuetics, received $12 million from the cancer agency for a scientific proposal despite receiving low scores from reviewers; O’Donnell invested in Peloton, whose $11 million award under­went no institutional review whatsoever.

Among Abbott’s critics is Glenn Smith, director of the liberal Progress Texas PAC, which filed a complaint against the cancer agency with prosecutors in Austin. Noting Abbott never attended a meeting, Smith asked, “Why would he? The scandal-plagued agency was funneling millions to Abbott’s contributors. From Abbott’s point of view the corruption was going swimmingly.”

There’s no dispute that Abbott was completely hands-off as a member of the CPRIT oversight board, that the person he picked as his proxy was lax about attending meetings, or that Abbott’s office never found any of the wrongdoing that was going on. His defense is that 1) he was no more compromised or clueless than any of the other board members, and 2) it’s all politics anyway. Good luck with that first argument is all I can say about that. If you’re trying to abet the case that we need real change in our state leadership and not just a shuffling of the deck, you’re doing fine. As for the complaint that it’s all politics, welcome to the big leagues. I’ve no doubt that politics is a part of this – the Lone Star Project was the originator of much of the information in this story – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it. If you don’t have a substantive rebuttal to the charges then your accusation about politics will sound like you’re the one playing politics. Abbott’s not used to being in the spotlight, or to being scrutinized this closely. Time to raise your game, dude.

TPJ alleges Perry broke the law when he threatened to veto Public Integrity funds

Well, now isn’t this a nice little can of worms.

Rosemary Lehmberg

In a complaint sent to prosecutors today, Texans for Public Justice alleges that Governor Rick Perry potentially committed several criminal offenses related to his recent threat to use his discretionary power to withhold money from the Travis County District Attorney’s office unless DA Rosemary Lehmberg resigns. TPJ believes the governor’s actions violate the Texas Penal Code, Title 8, Offenses Against Public Administration.

“Governor Perry has no legal authority to remove the Travis Country District Attorney from her job. Threatening to take an official action against her office unless she voluntarily resigns is likely illegal,” said Craig McDonald, TPJ Director.

“The governor overstepped his authority by sticking his nose in Travis County’s business. A legal process is currently underway. That process is alone should determine the fate of the District Attorney.

“Governor Perry’s official threats attempt to obtain two things that he can’t achieve through legal democratic means. First, to remove an elected Democrat and replace her with an appointed Republican DA. Second, to wipe out the state’s public corruption watchdog, which is currently investigating corruption in at least one of the governor’s signature corporate subsidy programs.

TPJ sent its complaint letter to both the Travis County District Attorney and to the Travis County Attorney’s office. TPJ believes the Governor’s actions violate Penal Code Section 36.03 Coercion of a Public Servant, Section 39.02 Abuse of Official Capacity, Section 39.03 Official Oppression and potentially the Bribery Section 39.02. The offenses range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class 2 felony.

BOR voiced this argument a couple of days ago. Here’s the complaint, and here is my blog post about Perry’s veto threat. And late Friday afternoon, Perry followed through on his threat by zeroing out the PIU budget. The game is well and truly afoot.

The “signature corporate subsidy program” is presumably the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, the investigation into which Dems had previously argued would be shut down by Perry defunding the Public Integrity Unit. In response to a question related to this on Thursday, Perry suggested that Travis County could simply re-prioritize its own spending to keep the PIU and its investigations going. Perhaps that will be an argument for a grand jury; in any event, we’ll see how Travis County responds. The idea of Lehmberg’s office possibly pursuing an indictment against Perry for issuing that veto threat boggles the mind, but it sure as hell will be fun to watch. Any lawyers want to take a crack at this? Texas Politics, TRail Blazers, EoW, and BOR have more.

UH goes smoke-free

Good for them.

The University of Houston, which educates more than 40,000 students each year on its 667-acre campus, will become tobacco-free June 1, school officials announced Thursday.

The new policy, approved by UH Chancellor Renu Khator, bans the use of tobacco products in all university buildings and grounds, including parking areas, sidewalks and walkways. It will apply to all employees, students, contractors and visitors to the campus.

“We are very well aware that this will be an inconvenience to the UH community of smokers,” said Kathryn Peek, assistant vice president of university health initiatives and co-chair of the school’s tobacco task force. “But nobody has to quit smoking. What we’re trying to do is eliminate second-hand smoke on the campus.”

For smokers, UH will provide 20 designated open areas for tobacco use mostly situated away from buildings and walkways. People will be able to smoke there, but after a year the task force will decide if it will allow those exemptions to continue.

[…]

UH is a recipient of more than $9.4 million in funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, which began requiring its recipients in 2012 to have tobacco-free policies in and around all locations where research is conducted.

The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University banned tobacco on their campuses in 2012. Texas A&M is awaiting approval of the president to establish a tobacco-free campus. All are CPRIT grant recipients.

“CPRIT accelerated the university’s tobacco-free campus policy, but that isn’t the sole reason,” Peek said. “This was a student-led movement from the beginning.”

Good to know CPRIT has been good for something. More seriously, I’m somewhat amazed that UH didn’t already ban smoking in these places. Most public places have been smoke-free for so long that I suppose I just took that for granted. This has been in the works at UH since June but it’s just coming up now. Better late than never, I guess.

No smoking at UH

Put that cigarette down and slowly back away.

The University of Houston is on its way to becoming a tobacco-free campus.

Under a new proposal by school officials, UH would outlaw the “use, sale, advertising, and sampling of all tobacco products” on the 667-acre campus. Currently, smoking is prohibited inside buildings and cars and within 15 feet of building entrances.

The proposed policy must be approved by the UH president and council of vice presidents, but officials already are planning a fall semester “rollout” that would include an education campaign and smoking cessation classes, said Kathryn Peek, assistant vice president of university health initiatives and co-chair of the Tobacco Task Force. The policy would apply only to the main campus.

During a 12-month phase-in of the new policy, smoking would be allowed in temporary designated smoking areas, Peek said.

[…]

In February, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas announced that grant recipients would be required to have tobacco-free policies. UH has received $6.9 million in funding from CPRIT and expects more in the future, Peek said.

The University of Texas at Austin, which has received about $30 million in CPRIT funding, banned tobacco in April. Texas A&M, which has been awarded about $3.4 million in CPRIT grants, plans to modify its current policy, which forbids smoking inside buildings and athletic facilities.

According to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, about 711 colleges and universities are 100 percent smoke-free.

I had no idea this sort of thing has been happening on college campuses. My own alma mater has not taken this step yet. I don’t see any sign that the anti-smoking movement is slowing down, which is fine by me. The public health case for limiting cigarettes as much as possible is crystal clear.

Sometimes I think about the ways in which my life and experiences growing up will be utterly incomprehensible to my daughters. Much of that has to do with the advance of technology, but in many ways societal change will be more profound. When I was Olivia’s age, you could fly in the smoking section of an airplane. I’ve had the misfortune of being stuck in such a place before. When I filled out my roommate-match form for college, one of the questions asked was whether or not you smoked. I waited tables at a restaurant the summer after my sophomore year that was about 90% smoking section; the four tables that didn’t have ashtrays on them were non-smoking in name only. In the early 90s, it was still possible to buy an entry for the smoking section of a bridge tournament; these were generally held in hotels. And so on and so forth. Not everything about the world my girls are growing up in is better, but this part of it sure is.