Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is launching a new front in her campaign against Attorney General Greg Abbott this week, highlighting Abbott’s history with the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, CPRIT, the taxpayer-funded cancer-research agency that imploded amid allegations that money earmarked for lifesaving medical research was slipped into major Republican donors’ pockets instead.
The attack first came from the left-wing group Progress Texas, followed by a Davis campaign rally Tuesday that echoed some of the same points. Progress Texas has been trying to tie CPRIT to Gov. Rick Perry and Abbott for two years—but the new push comes as the governor’s race is heating up, and as Perry faces allegations he tried to quash an investigation into CPRIT by the Travis County District Attorney’s office. The ad features cancer survivors talking about their anger over misspent research money.
On Tuesday, Davis appeared at the Austin Tex-Mex restaurant Juan in a Million to level some of the same criticisms. “Greg Abbott allowed our cancer institute to become a piggy bank and allowed his donors to siphon off millions of tax dollars from cancer patients and from taxpayers,” she told a crowd of supporters. “When Abbott served on the oversight board of our state’s cancer research institute, he wasn’t looking out for cancer patients. He was looking out for his political donors.”
CPRIT was a signature Perry initiative, and Abbott was appointed to the organization’s governing board, which was supposed to provide oversight. State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), who helped write the legislation that created CPRIT, said Abbott was appointed to the board to provide “that extra set of eyes and knowledge.” Abbott didn’t attend a single CPRIT board meeting, and appointed a deputy to represent him on the board, who missed more than a third of the board meetings. In that time, millions of dollars flowed from the fund into companies ill-suited to perform cancer research—companies with close financial ties to major Republican donors.
For example: conservative Christian activist James Leininger—founder of the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, and a family friend of Abbott’s who’d given the candidate more than $275,000—had a financial stake in one company called Caliber Biotherapeutics.
In 2011, Caliber submitted a grant request to CPRIT, and a team of scientific reviewers awarded Caliber’s proposal a score of 4.5 (out of 9), according to the Dallas Morning News. Dr. William Kaelin, a reviewer who once worked with CPRIT’s review board, told the paper that score was effectively a warning:
“A four, five or six meant they really thought it had flaws, that certain things that were proposed were simply not right, they weren’t built on a solid foundation, that the logic was flawed, et cetera,” he said.
Yet Caliber won almost $13 million from the agency.
CPRIT started to unravel in 2012 under increased scrutiny. At one critical meeting in October of that year, the fund’s board members met to work out the agency’s future, amid calls for a sweeping overhaul and resignations from the fund’s officers. Abbott didn’t show, the Morning News again reported, although he had time to appear on Fox News to talk about the presidential elections.
For her part, Davis was one of a number of legislators in the 2013 session to advocate for overhauling CPRIT. Davis’ reforms, which would have removed Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs from the governing board, stalled in committee, while a rival reform package authored by state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) passed.
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.