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Moffitt’s push for state money is clouded by China investigation

The Tampa cancer center wants to expand by capturing millions more in state cigarette taxes, but its request to the Legislature comes at an awkward time.
Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa is asking the state for expansion money at the same time the Legislature is investigating its entanglements with China. [Moffitt Cancer Center]

A scandal that recently forced six Moffitt Cancer Center employees to resign has not dampened the center’s push for nearly $400 million in state money to fund a major expansion.

Moffitt’s plans for a new hospital in Tampa and a research center in Pasco County rely on the Legislature increasing the center’s share of the state’s cigarette tax. But the request comes as lawmakers investigate how top professionals at Moffitt and other Florida institutions became entangled in a strategy by China to exploit U.S.-based research for its own use.

Nothing about that controversy — which prompted the resignation of Moffitt CEO Alan List — has eased demand for the center’s work, argues interim CEO Tim Adams, who chairs Moffitt’s board of trustees.

“Our need is the same and our growth continues,” Adams said in an interview. "We need the state’s help to continue our research and patient care.”

Moffitt’s allies in the Legislature are staying positive, while also acknowledging the awkward timing.

RELATED: Top Moffitt Cancer Center doctors failed to disclose payments from China, report says

“The recent revelations of what’s going on is a setback, but we’re going to keep pushing and exploring this year,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Tribly, one of three lawmakers championing the Moffitt funding increase with bills in the House and Senate.

“With more resources,” he added, "Moffitt will become a world leader and help save more lives.”

Simpson is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 494 with Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, which passed the health policy committee last month and has moved onto the finance and tax committee. State Rep. J.W. Grant, R-Tampa, is sponsoring House Bill 411, which has yet to gain much traction.

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of what happened at Moffitt, but I think the climate, for the most part, is about separating bad actors from these institutions,” said Grant, whose father, John A. Grant, Jr., is a former lawmaker and sits on Moffitt’s board.

“The state is collecting information, and Moffitt’s board handled the situation as well as possible," J.W. Grant said. “We were able to take swift action because of their leadership.”

Records show that Moffitt’s internal investigation was gaining steam late last year, even as List, the former CEO, was leading an effort to build legislative support for the state money.

“Our operating rooms are too small and we cannot get the technology we need into the rooms,” List told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board in September.

He was forced to resign in December, along with five other esteemed Moffitt scientists, because of ties to Chinese talent programs that they failed to disclose, according to a report detailing the center’s investigation. The document revealed that List and others accepted money from China, opened Chinese bank accounts, and pledged to work on biomedical research in the country.

Florida lawmakers responded swiftly to the revelations. State Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, is leading a select committee in the Florida House charged with investigating Moffitt and other Florida research institutions and universities, in search of more foreign meddling.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott sent letters to all Florida university presidents requesting more information of their safeguard protocols. More recently, Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio asked American Hospital Association President Richard Pollack for more information on the steps they have taken to protect U.S. research and intellectual property.

Moffitt currently receives 4 percent of the state’s tax on cigarettes. The new legislation proposes to increase that to 7 percent in 2020 — then to 10 percent in 2023.

The first bump would produce $205 million, which would be paired with $332 million from Moffitt to build a new hospital on its campus at 10920 N McKinley Dr. in Tampa. The property currently is home to an outpatient center and has 22 acres of land to develop.

Moffitt also wants to create a new surgical center on that site and move all operating room care out of its 30-year-old hospital on the USF campus. In addition to freeing up more research space, the new hospital tower would include a center specializing in clinical care on solid tumors.

Separately, Moffitt officials want to secure $191 million from the second cigarette tax increase. That money would fund the new research park in Pasco. Construction is tentatively set to begin in 2023 on a parcel along the Veteran’s Expressway that the cancer center purchased this week.

RELATED: In need of an upgrade, Moffitt Cancer Center seeks millions more from state cigarette tax

“Our clinical volumes are up 9 percent year-over-year,” said Adams, the interim CEO. “I believe our lawmakers recognize the global recognition we bring to Florida with 70,000 patients a year."

Moffitt was established in 1981 by the Legislature and is the only National Cancer Institute-designated “comprehensive cancer center” in Florida. The hospital opened in 1986.

Each year, Moffitt sees patients from all over the U.S. and 133 countries. Adams estimates that the number of patients soon will reach 100,000 a year if the growth continues.

Moffitt is known for its work in immunotherapy, a newer approach that uses the body’s own cells to fight cancer. The hospital is also a draw to biotechnology companies, which have relocated to Tampa from around the world to work in Moffitt’s research labs.

Moffitt isn’t the only Florida institution to face inquiries over foreign influence. Three researchers from the University of Florida resigned and one was terminated after the school received a letter from the National Institutes of Health regarding questionable foreign meddling in grant research and funding. The FBI and Department of Justice, among other agencies, are involved in similar cases at academic institutions across the country.

Three high-profile professors at Harvard were charged last month related to similar scandals. Another from Emory University was fired last year and now faces criminal charges.

“Unlike others that have been in the news, we were proactive. We identified the threat and took action,” Adams said. “We learned from this investigation and are identifying improvements so this doesn’t happen again in our future."

Moffitt has hired the recruiting firm, Russell Reynolds Associates to search for its next full-time chief executive. Adams said the board hopes to have someone in place by the summer.

In recent years, Moffitt leaders have attempted to secure funds for their expansion through appropriations at the tail end of the legislative session. But each time they failed to break through with lawmakers.

“If not this year, there’s always next year,” Simpson said.

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