The role that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has played in the ongoing saga surrounding CPRIT continues to grow in complexity as close scrutiny of his participation before and after the scandal escalates.
By the time the CPRIT matter is brought to a close, one wonders if virtually everyone in Texas will have no more than six degrees of separation between themselves and someone else who was ensnared by the scandal. After the initial blowout last October, the matter refuses to go out with a whimper; what consistently looks like a scandal ready to be resolved seems to be continuously brought back to square one: the resignation of Bill Gimson, the closing down of the CPRIT Foundation, the move to replace the Executive Director with a council (yes — yet another board for CPRIT governance and oversight), and the recent call to dissolve the 11-person governing board and start afresh pockmark the CPRIT story from beginning to whenever the end might arrive.
Strangely undiscussed in the CPRIT matter, however, has been state Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose role in CPRIT — from beginning to end — can only be characterized by curious inaction followed by curious action. This week, in a piece from the Dallas Morning News, the media focus on CPRIT is now looking a bit closer into the role that Mr. Abbott has played in CPRIT.
According to Dallas Morning News staff writers James Drew and Sue Goetnick Ambrose, the Attorney General, who himself had a de facto seat on CPRIT’s oversight committee, played a strikingly minimalist role in overseeing the organization — even throughout the period of time that CPRIT was making giant missteps, such as with Peloton and CTNET:
Over the past five years, Abbott exchanged only nine emails with key state officials concerning CPRIT, an examination of records by The Dallas Morning News found.
Abbott said his behavior arose from his anticipation of possible future conflicts. Picking a high-ranking assistant to take his place “allowed me to retain the independence to take action to respond to any broader challenges posed by CPRIT,” Abbott said in a written statement. “Hindsight proved foresight correct.”
For as much as the Mr. Abbott’s desire to remain detached from the oversight committee in order to avoid a conflict of interest between that role and the Attorney General’s office is a plausible explanation for his non-participation, critics will be quick to suggest that Mr. Abbott’s explicit role in chairing the oversight committee was to add a provocative oversight presence to the committee’s actions: if the committee wouldn’t have felt comfortable making certain past decisions with the Attorney General present, then perhaps his steady presence would have effectively discouraged the mismanagement and lack of peer review that led to the scandal in the first place.
However, the Attorney General’s office was indeed quick to investigate once the scandal broke, opening up a wide-ranging investigation in December. The Dallas Morning News rightfully points that “Abbott is therefore in the position of investigating an agency over which his office already had oversight.” The article goes on to explain that:
Abbott is investigating the agency’s granting of money to a company that had an Abbott campaign donor as an investor. A law firm representing that company also has served as legal counsel for Abbott’s campaign organization. That same law firm has contributed $160,000 to Abbott’s campaigns since 2001.
In addition, Abbott’s office is representing CPRIT, as legal counsel, in its dispute with a foundation created to raise private funds for the public agency. Among the foundation’s donors are people who also have given money to Abbott’s campaigns.
Thus, in an attempt to avoid conflicts of interest, Mr. Abbott now finds himself having to answer questions about how his office will be able to represent the state-run portion of CPRIT and investigate the CPRIT Foundation while his own political affiliations are bound up in both arms of the organizations.
It would appear that the Attorney General will seek to pivot from the accusations by reminding critics once again that he himself played little role in CPRIT prior to the scandal, having appointed a high-ranking member of his team to sit in his place (in spite of the fact that CPRIT “lists Abbott as a member on its website, with a picture of him and an extensive biography.”) Critics may call his explanation “plausible deniability;” Mr. Abbott calls it the right decision: “hindsight proved foresight correct” — a nebulous term, but one that just might allow him to help finish his role in the CPRIT saga as an investigator and not a participant.