California stem cell agency digs in deeper

Posted by Jesse Reynolds July 1, 2009
Biopolitical Times

California's official "good government" agency issued its report [PDF] on the state's stem cell agency last week, which in turn fought back with all too typical defensiveness and arrogance, including a threat of suing the state government.

At the urging of the state legislature, the Little Hoover Commission examined the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) governance. (I testified at the Commission's first hearing, back in November.) Its recommendations are relatively modest: CIRM's governing board should be smaller, with most members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The agency should no longer have dual--and sometimes conflicting--leadership. Its audit committee should include performance audits. And so forth. In restrained language, the Commission's report also cited widespread concerns about the "actions and personal style of ICOC chair Robert Klein" and CIRM's often tenuous relationship with the legislature.

True to form, CIRM quickly fired back. Klein's private advocacy group released a memo authored by lobbyists that CIRM had hired to ward off reform efforts (a further indication that Klein uses Americans for Cures as a vehicle for actions from which he would otherwise be proscribed as board chair (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)). CIRM's outside legal counsel also issued a memo. CIRM itself offered a strongly-worded press release--strangely not on the agency's website--which played the "cures card" and threatened a lawsuit if the recommended reforms are pursued. David Jensen, whose coverage at the California Stem Cell Report sets the standard, described this threat as raising "the rather bizarre picture of a state agency suing the governor and the legislature."

Such hostility to oversight demostrates exactly what the Little Hoover report describes as the "adversarial climate" that CIRM has created. It can largely be traced to Klein, who set the tone soon after the 2004 passage of Proposition 71, which created CIRM, by saying that "the Legislature is not needed." Unfortunately, the irony of CIRM's hostile response to a mild critique of its "adversarial" habits was likely lost on Klein.

At least one member of CIRM's board publicly expressed his frustration with the agency's reaction. In a comment on the California Stem Cell Report blog, AIDS / HIV patient advocate Jeff Sheehy condemned the agency's "knee jerk" opposition to the report, and asked, "On whose authority are thousands of dollars of lobbying, communications, and legal resources being spent opposing this report?" He later elaborated in a longer statement to the blog.

The Little Hoover Commission focused on increased accountability and transparency at CIRM, but the stakes are even higher. In fact, the $3 billion research program was cited twice in a feature article in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle about how the state arrived at its current budget crisis. Although the Little Hoover report does not raise the prospect of limiting CIRM's cash stream, which would likely require another ballot measure, the leadership of the stem cell agency should take note of the fiscal climate, and use its political capital wisely.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: