Multimillion-dollar cancer agency network shuts down

By Paul J. Weber
Associated Press

AUSTIN — A fledgling Texas cancer trials network announced Tuesday that it had shut down after auditors found more than $300,000 in expenses deemed inappropriate in the latest blow to the state’s troubled $3 billion cancer-fighting agency.

The Clinical Trials Network of Texas received a $25 million grant from the state in 2010, though it had only received about $7 million in taxpayer dollars before running out of money last month. State officials began halting payments after auditors raised questions that included how the network even won funding in the first place.

The clinical trial network, or CTNeT, obtained the largest grant ever awarded by the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which now adds this failure to a litany of woes. Those include an ongoing criminal investigation, mass resignations and rebuke from lawmakers and scientists over controversial awards and accusations of political meddling.

A scathing report of the institute released by state auditors this week revealed that Patricia Winger, the chief operations officer of CTNeT, was paid $160,000 in bonuses on top of her base salary. CTNeT also spent more than $116,000 for interior decorations and furniture, which auditors said are expenses “unallowable or questionable” for a research grant under state agency rules.

Dr. Charles Geyer, chief medical officer of CTNetT, told The Associated Press the nonprofit needed to set up offices for its 36 employees. He said he wasn’t involved in the decisions surrounding Winger’s bonuses but defended her role, saying she used her own money to help get the effort off the ground.

Attempts to reach Winger through CTNeT and others affiliated with the network were not immediately successful Tuesday.

“I understand the appearance. But I know Ms. Winger, and she did a lot,” Geyer said. “She worked basically for three months before she got her first paycheck. …She made a lot of sacrifices because she was committed to this.”

Geyer said he did not know Winger’s salary. Thirty employees with CTNet have been laid off, and Geyer said the remaining six are working at minimum wage to finish winding down the initiative.

Geyer said the trial network is folding just as progress was finally being made. Just a week ago, Geyer said, the network was on the verge of enrolling patients in its first clinical trial.

“The real irony is that we were really on the cusp of launching the thing in a very serious way,” Geyer said.

Bill Gimson, the former executive director of cancer institute who resigned last month as problems with the state agency mounted, said in an email to the AP that the intent of the network was to provide more opportunities for Texas cancer patients to enroll in clinical trials. Only 3 percent of Texans with cancer are in clinical trials, Gimson said.

“CTNeT was created for Texas to help cancer patients in the State access a higher level of care,” GImson said. “It is groundbreaking, imaginative and revolutionary and does not fit the mold of, nor can be judged as, a typical state-funded effort.”

The cancer institute was a darling of the scientific community and some of the nation’s biggest advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society, after launching in 2009 as an unprecedented cancer-fighting effort on the state level.

The agency oversees the nation’s second-largest pot of cancer research dollars, next to only the federal National Institutes of Health.

That money is now frozen, with the institute under a moratorium until confidence in the agency is restored. Prior to CTNeT shutting down, most troublesome to the state agency was awarding $11 million to a private biotech firm in Dallas despite never reviewing the company’s proposal.

That led to public corruption officers in Travis County and the Texas attorney general’s office launched separate investigations. No one has been accused of wrongdoing.