In the more than four years he served on the state cancer agency’s governing board, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott exercised no oversight as the agency made misstep after misstep in awarding tens of millions of dollars to commercial interests.
The state’s top lawyer and watchdog instead appointed one of his deputies, who missed about a third of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Oversight Committee meetings, and, by all accounts, was not much of a presence in the agency’s questionable decision-making.
“It turns out that Abbott sitting on the oversight board was a green light rather than a caution sign,” wrote Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee. “Businesses backed by Abbott contributors – many of whom are partisan Republicans – have received large grants and contracts from CPRIT without fear of any oversight at all.”
The attorney general’s minimalist scrutiny of the cancer institute did not draw much attention when the Legislature lit into the agency during the regular session, but now that he is running for governor it is becoming a significant campaign issue.
“It is surprising to me that someone who is the attorney general would not attend board meetings of a fund that involves $3 billion in taxpayer dollars,” said Tom Pauken, who is vying with Abbott for the nomination for governor in next spring’s Republican primary.
Abbott’s role at the cancer agency has raised additional questions because of the investigation his office is conducting into the agency’s scandals. Critics question how he can objectively investigate alleged conflicts of interest and favoritism at the agency after his office did nothing to stop it. They also ask how he can look into possible impropriety involving donors that made contributions to the agency and later received grants when some of those donors also have given to Abbott and figure to be tapped again as his gubernatorial campaign kicks into gear.
A review of Abbott’s correspondence while his office was on the oversight board, obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, found nothing expressing concern about the agency.
“It’s nice to talk about suing Obama all of the time, but the attorney general has other duties,” Pauken said. “When there’s so much taxpayer money on the table, it is surprising that the attorney general would be asleep at the switch.”
[Abbott’s chief communications officer Jerry] Strickland dismissed criticism of the office’s lack of oversight as political.
“Given the failure of CPRIT staff to follow procedure and properly inform the Oversight Committee, it would have been impossible for any designee to fully brief the attorney general about what was happening because they were left in the dark about critical decisions and mistakes along the way,” Strickland wrote. “Presumably, that’s also why none of the oversight committee members appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor or the Speaker raised issues about the grants. Despite their varied experiences and expertise, they simply were not provided with information that would have raised red flags.”
That has not stopped critics from noting that some of the agency’s most questionable grants went to companies affiliated with some of Abbott’s major donors.
Since 2001, James Leininger has donated $289,000 to Abbott, campaign finance records show, and Peter O’Donnell has contributed $130,000 during the same time period. Some political activists question these donations, noting that Leininger’s company, Caliber Biotherapuetics, received $12 million from the cancer agency for a scientific proposal despite receiving low scores from reviewers; O’Donnell invested in Peloton, whose $11 million award underwent no institutional review whatsoever.
Among Abbott’s critics is Glenn Smith, director of the liberal Progress Texas PAC, which filed a complaint against the cancer agency with prosecutors in Austin. Noting Abbott never attended a meeting, Smith asked, “Why would he? The scandal-plagued agency was funneling millions to Abbott’s contributors. From Abbott’s point of view the corruption was going swimmingly.”
There’s no dispute that Abbott was completely hands-off as a member of the CPRIT oversight board, that the person he picked as his proxy was lax about attending meetings, or that Abbott’s office never found any of the wrongdoing that was going on. His defense is that 1) he was no more compromised or clueless than any of the other board members, and 2) it’s all politics anyway. Good luck with that first argument is all I can say about that. If you’re trying to abet the case that we need real change in our state leadership and not just a shuffling of the deck, you’re doing fine. As for the complaint that it’s all politics, welcome to the big leagues. I’ve no doubt that politics is a part of this – the Lone Star Project was the originator of much of the information in this story – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it. If you don’t have a substantive rebuttal to the charges then your accusation about politics will sound like you’re the one playing politics. Abbott’s not used to being in the spotlight, or to being scrutinized this closely. Time to raise your game, dude.