Conflict-of-Interest Scandal at California Stem Cell Agency

Posted by Jesse Reynolds November 26, 2007
Biopolitical Times
An all-too predictable scandal has erupted on the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The details reveal improper and probably illegal influence on the use of public funds. The big picture is the structural design of the board, which requires that a majority consist of representatives of the very institutions that will receive grants.

Documents obtained by the California Stem Cell Report via a Public Records Act request indicate that board member John Reed, who is also the president of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, personally lobbied CIRM's staff about a grant to Burnham that had been initially approved for funding but was then rejected by CIRM administration on technical grounds.

Reed wasn't merely assisting CIRM staff members by clarifying a few details. They'd been in regular communication for seven months with their counterparts at Burnham in order to assess the eligibility of the grant recipient. They were about to announce the denial of the grant when Reed sent his seven-page letter. When a board member who is also president of one of the top grant-receiving institutions sends such a letter, emphasizing the "potentially damaging consequences" and "dangerous precedent" of a denial, he's not just providing helpful details. He's sending a strong message.

Reed should clearly step down as a CIRM board member. But he's not the only guilty party. He'd first asked for the opinion of CIRM board chair Robert Klein, who recommended that he write the letter. While Reed can, and does, claim that he didn't fully understand the prohibitions in CIRM's enabling laws concerning such influence, Klein can't claim such ignorance. Although he claims that he's now "learned something" about the law, Klein was its primary author.

We long ago called on Klein to resign - a position now endorsed by the Sacramento Bee and the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights - in part because he repeatedly chooses back-room machinations and misleading statements over transparency and accountability. This is a continuation of that pattern. But we also originally opposed Proposition 71, which created CIRM in 2004, because it vested governance of $3 billion of the public's funds in the hands of those seeking to maximize their share of the funds. This week's development is a predictable result.

What's more, this revelation occurs on the heels of major technical advances in stem cell research that call into question the relevance of California's $3 billion set-aside for embryonic stem cell research.