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Texas cancer agency in criminal probe

When Bill Gimson, the executive director of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), submitted his resignation on Monday, he wrote, in part, that he has “been placed in a situation where I feel I can [no] longer be effective.”

Yesterday, the reason for that became clearer, with the news that the agency is under criminal investigation by the District Attorney (DA) of Travis County in Austin, where CPRIT is located.

This 7 December letter from the Travis County DA to CPRIT General Counsel Kristen Doyle, and this letter from the DA to Gimson, notify the agency of the launch of the investigation, and note that the destruction of any documents or e-mails is a criminal offence under the Texas penal code. “We will be in touch in the near future with a subpoena or other legal demand for documents and/or electronic mail,” the letter adds.

Interviewed today by Nature, Gregg Cox, the director of the public integrity unit in the DA’s office, said that the office was alerted to concerns about potentially criminal activity surrounding the awarding of certain CPRIT grants after this 17 November expose ran in The Dallas Morning News.

It revealed that a major campaign contributor to Texas governor Rick Perry and lieutenant governor David Dewhurst also had ties to companies that scored poorly on review but nonetheless received CPRIT awards.

The DA’s office is also examining an unreviewed, US$11-million CPRIT grant made in 2010 to Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics, says Cox. “Peloton is part of [our investigation] but there are other allegations as well, and we are going to be looking at all of it.”

Cox says the team from the DA’s office will include at least two attorneys, one investigator — a licensed police officer who does detective work — and one analyst, an accountant who helps track the money. “But it could grow to be even larger,” he says.

As the DA’s investigation drew headlines this week, it also came to light that, upon CPRIT’s recent request, the Texas attorney general has opened a civil investigation of the circumstances surrounding the granting of the unreviewed $11-million award to Peloton. In this 10 December letter from the attorney general’s office to Jimmy Mansour,  the chairman of CPRIT’s governing oversight committee, Texas’s first assistant attorney general Daniel Hodge notes that the attorney general’s review will include efforts to help CPRIT resurrect missing electronic files and an investigation of “any financial interest CPRIT staff or any other individual may have had in the Peloton grant award.”

Separately, Jay Dyer, the attorney general’s appointed representative to the CPRIT governing board, scolded Gimson in this 7 December letter for taking two months to notify CPRIT’s governing board about the unreviewed Peloton grant. The lack of review became known to CPRIT staff when an audit was completed in late September this year.

In response to an interview request, Gimson said in an e-mailed statement: “CPRIT will cooperate fully with the Attorney General’s office and the Travis County District Attorney’s office on their investigations. There will be no further comment at this time.”

There was one bright spot for CPRIT this week: it announced that Margaret Kripke, a respected cancer immunologist and, until recently, part of a three-member panel that advises the US president on the nation’s cancer programme, will become the agency’s chief scientific officer, beginning on 7 January.  Here is a summary of Kripke’s conversation with reporters yesterday.

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