Gov. Rick Perry's presidential pitch goes something like this: During one of the worst recessions in American history, he's kept his state "open for business." In the last two years, Texas created over a quarter of a million jobs, meaning that the state's 8% unemployment rate is substantially lower than the rest of the nation's. The governor credits this exceptional growth to things like low taxes and tort reform.
It's a strong message. But one of the governor's signature economic development initiatives—the Texas Emerging Technology Fund—has lately raised serious questions among some conservatives.
The Emerging Technology Fund was created at Mr. Perry's behest in 2005 to act as a kind of public-sector venture capital firm, largely to provide funding for tech start-ups in Texas. Since then, the fund has committed nearly $200 million of taxpayer money to fund 133 companies. Mr. Perry told a group of CEOs in May that the fund's "strategic investments are what's helping us keep groundbreaking innovations in the state." The governor, together with the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the Texas House, enjoys ultimate decision-making power over the fund's investments.
Among the companies that the Emerging Technology Fund has invested in is Convergen LifeSciences, Inc. It received a $4.5 million grant last year—the second largest grant in the history of the fund. The founder and executive chairman of Convergen is David G. Nance.
In 2009, when Mr. Nance submitted his application for a $4.5 million Emerging Technology Fund grant for Convergen, he and his partners had invested only $1,000 of their own money into their new company, according to documentation prepared by the governor's office in February 2010. But over the years, Mr. Nance managed to invest a lot more than $1,000 in Mr. Perry. Texas Ethics Commission records show that Mr. Nance donated $75,000 to Mr. Perry's campaigns between 2001 and 2006.
The regional panel that reviewed Convergen's application turned down the company's $4.5 million request when it presented its proposal on Oct. 7, 2009. But Mr. Nance appealed that decision directly to a statewide advisory committee (of which Mr. Nance was once a member) appointed by Mr. Perry. Just eight days later, on Oct. 15, a subcommittee unanimously recommended approval by the full statewide committee. On Oct. 29, the full advisory committee unanimously recommended the approval of Convergen's application. When asked why the advisory committee felt comfortable recommending Convergen's grant, Lucy Nashed, a spokesperson for Mr. Perry, said that the committee "thoroughly vetted the company."
Starting in 2008, Mr. Perry also appropriated approximately $2 million in federal taxpayer money through the auspices of the Wagner-Peyser Act—a federal works program founded during the New Deal and overseen in Texas by Mr. Perry's office—to a nonprofit launched by Mr. Nance called Innovate Texas. The nonprofit was meant to help entrepreneurs by linking them to investors. It began receiving funding on Dec. 31, 2008, soon after Mr. Nance's previous company, Introgen Therapeutics, declared bankruptcy on Dec. 3. According to state records, Mr. Nance paid himself $250,000 for the two years he ran Innovate Texas. Innovate Texas, whose listed phone number is not a working number, could not be reached for comment. (Two phone calls left for Mr. Nance at Convergen's offices went unreturned.)
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