Lawmakers confused over M.D. Anderson grant

Joshua Fechter

After hours of testimony and extensive questioning, lawmakers did not receive a clear answer about how a $25.2 million grant awarded to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston wound up in the pockets of a now-defunct nonprofit.

Texas voters approved the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, also known as CPRIT, through a constitutional amendment in 2007, which authorized the state to issue $3 billion in bonds for cancer research funds. The institute is the second-largest funding source for cancer research in the United States after the National Institute of Health.

The institute is currently under investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s office and the Travis County District Attorney’s office for how it approved and distributed grants. As a result, the Texas Legislative Budget Board recommended cutting all state funds to CPRIT for the 2014-15 biennium.

On Wednesday, the Texas House Appropriations Committee questioned CPRIT officials how a grant initially intended for MD Anderson went to the Statewide Clinical Trials Network of Texas, or CTNeT, a nonprofit clinical network that ceased operations last week. CTNeT closed its doors after auditors found that the network used $1.3 million in grant money for non-research purposes such as purchasing furniture, granting salary increases and bonuses and reimbursing travel expenses. At the time, the network had received about $8 million of the grant.

CPRIT awarded MD Anderson a grant in June 2010 to create a statewide network of universities conducting cancer research, but then transferred it to CTNeT, which formed in August 2010. 

“It’s more [about] the idea of bringing together all of these entities,” said Kristen Doyle, general counsel to CPRIT.

Wesley Harrott, executive director of research administration at MD Anderson, said MD Anderson prepared the initial application for the grant but was not informed on why CPRIT transferred it to the nonprofit. While MD Anderson did not help start CTNeT, it supplied some matching funds to the nonprofit, which the Texas Constitution requires of institutions applying for grants.

Harrott said the university did not ask why the grant had been transferred because the university did not intend to be the sole recipient of the grant, which was designed to be distributed amongst institutions participating in the research network.

“We certainly thought that CTNeT was an important idea for the state,” he said. “Getting clinical trials available to everyone in the state is something that MD Anderson thinks is a very worthwhile effort.”

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie and committee chairman, said he did not understand why MD Anderson did not ask CPRIT why the grant was transferred.

“So, if I get a grant for $25 million and they don’t give it to me, they give it to [Vice Chairman Sylvester Turner, D-Houston], are you all going to ask where the $25 million grant was? I’d sure find out where it went,” Pitts said.

State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, said she does not understand how one institution applied for and was awarded a grant that another
organization received.

“If you come back and tell me that the applicant was CTNet, I’m good. If you come back and tell me that the applicant was MD Anderson, then we need to continue the conversation,” Giddings said.

Printed on Thursday, February 7, 2013 as: No answer for CPRIT's shady grant distributions