Perry Signs SB 149 CPRIT Reform Bill, As Scandal Goes Away In A Whimper

CPRITFanned by the Texas media, the CPRIT scandal rocked the Texas biotech and life sciences sectors and outraged Texan taxpayers. But Governor Rick Perry’s signing of the new SB 149 CPRIT reform bill last week barely made any waves in the news.

There aren’t many Senate bills that I can easily remember by number. In fact, for all of the controversy and political wrangling associated with Obamacare, I can’t even remember the U.S. House and Senate bills for the Affordable Care Act. However, for some odd reason, SB 149 — the Texas State Senate bill authored by Senator Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound to significantly reform the way CPRIT does business in Texas, seems to have stuck in my mind. Last Wednesday, a few headlines hit the news wire reading, “Governor Rick Perry Signs SB 149,” and I knew right away that, in large part, the CPRIT scandal had finally come to a close.

What I found particularly interesting, however, is how, in spite of a really nasty, disillusioning scandal like CPIRT having a largely happy ending for Texas taxpayers — the reformers got everything they wanted, from considerably more transparency to radical changes to avoid conflicts of interest — the Texas media largely downplayed Governor Perry’s signing of the bill. In this way, a scandal that started with an indignant outcry from the media and Texas residents ended as a footnote.

The palpable decline in coverage and attention to the CPRIT matter didn’t begin at the end, however: even the big news of the Texas Senate Unanimously Approving The Reconciled CPRIT Reform Bill, which BioNews Texas reported on back in late May, didn’t make waves in the media, in spite of the fact that the reconciled version of SB 149 included some radical changes to the cancer research funding agency, including the dissolution of the CPRIT Oversight Committee, a move that was insisted upon by the Texas House version of the bill. The House bill also ushered in another major organization change — a significant reduction in the power and influence of CPRIT’s Executive Director, instead seeking to replace that position with a governing panel.

Throughout the scandal, both the Oversight Committee and the role of the Executive Director came under the most political fire from the media and politicians alike. In mid-April, the Texas GOP put pressure on the veteran CPRIT Oversight Committee members to resign, even after the Committee made attempts to suggest radical reforms of their own.

There were efforts to save the structure of the Oversight Committee, such as appointing Former U.S. Representative and Government Watchdog Pete Geren, but in the end, too much of the blame for CPRIT’s wrongdoings rested with not only the individuals who comprised the organization’s leadership structure, but the leadership structure itself.

In no uncertain terms, the Texas Senate passing this reconciled bill was a big moment for Texas on several levels: in addition to re-opening a promising initiative to further fund critical cancer prevention and research efforts, the reform effort turned out to be decidedly bipartisan. Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, stated, ”I am proud to stand with my colleagues in passing CPRIT reform legislation,” admitting that “These changes will establish a line of accountability that had been erased by conflicts of interest and excessive corporate influence. Just as important, the bill provides much-needed transparency so that Texans are able to verify that the agency stays true to its mission to find cures for cancer.”

The Texas Tribune produced the video below providing an overview of CPRIT’s recent troubles:


Politicians on both sides of the political divide in Texas made sure to express ample measures of outrage over CPRIT’s errors throughout its controversy, but in the end, it was the biotech community that endorsed an affirmative redemption for the organization — lawmakers simply carried out the will of the consensus. CPRIT received a litany of powerful support from state and national leaders in cancer research, such as the American Cancer Society, former president of MD Anderson Dr. John Mendelsohn, and Dr. C. Kent Osborne, Director of the Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center and the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor College of Medicine, just to name a few.

Why then, after such a long and dramatic news story, with an arc that became high-profile enough to catch on with top-tier national media outlets, has the Texas media relegated the restart of CPRIT to a few muted blog posts?

Search “CPRIT” on Google and you’re not likely to find much from the mainstream news. Angela Shah at Xconomy only makes reference to the bill’s signing as part of her weekly “Texas Roundup” (as if Texas biotech news can all be covered in one weekly, 371-word blog post). Houston Chronicle Science Blogger Eric Berger concerned himself with turning the tragic-any-way-you-slice it story of MD Anderson researcher Dr. Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo’s alleged poising of lover and co-worker Dr. George Blumenschein, a story he helped break along with Todd Ackerman, into pulp with his piece “Why is ethylene glycol one of our favorite homicidal poisons?” — but has yet to collaborate with Ackerman on a CPRIT piece about the signing. Berger and Ackerman, however, did jump on publishing a slam piece about CPRIT back in December, when the scandal broke.

An easy explanation for the lack of coverage and interest in the end of the CPRIT saga is the fact that a happy ending and start of a new chapter in what all hope to be a more transparent, efficient CPRIT is simply not as sexy and headline grabbing to write about as stories involving the misuse and misappropriation of taxpayer money. While the consensus remains supportive of CPRIT’s charter, nothing makes for a better column than how the best of intentions were exposed to be flawed and corrupt.

However, a deeper look at biotech news coverage in Texas reveals that, in large part, biotech news isn’t covered in a positive light. Scandal and failure trump innovation and growth. New biotech partnerships are cross-reported with questionably related lawsuits. Funding issues at research institutions are conflated with the sequester.

This is a trend that plays out across a wide range of biotech news coverage in Texas, which is incongruous with the efforts being made in Texas biotech to help make the Lone State a true leader in research, treatment, and prevention. Texas biotech is a $70+ billion dollar industry now, and it employs over 70,000 people. With research institutions like MD Anderson, BCM, Texas A&M, UT Southwestern, and many others — as well as the contributions of top medical device and pharma companies throughout the state — there is a lot happening here that is worthy of some good press. The signing of SB 149 by Governor Perry is one of them.

It remains to be seen how CPRIT will continue to be covered in the news at large. As new projects are funded, “CPRIT” is bound to find its way into headlines again. The question is, will every new CPRIT story have a caveat pointing back to the 2012-2013 scandal?

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