Klein’s letter draws reaction over politics
The San Diego Union-Tribune
One day before voters went to the polls, the chairman of the state stem cell institute sent a scathing letter to patient advocates around California alleging that secretary of state candidate Sen. Deborah Ortiz was on an “anti-research crusade.”
The letter praised Sen. Debra Bowen, who defeated Ortiz in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for secretary of state, for helping with other legislators to improve the state stem cell initiative.
The letter written by Robert Klein, chairman of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, has created a stir with public advocates and at least one other member of the stem cell institute’s board, who question whether he should be involved in political campaigning.
“This is certainly not something that is appropriate for the chairman of the (institute’s board) to be cranking out,” said John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.
Although Klein legally has a right to campaign for causes he supports, Simpson said, most state residents forever will associate his name and actions with the stem cell institute.
Klein said he sent the letter not to campaign against Ortiz for secretary of state, but to clarify his opposition to Senate Bill 401, legislation Ortiz has sponsored with Republican George Runner that he said would impose “crippling restrictions” on stem cell research.
Klein said he sent the letter as chairman of Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, a registered campaign fundraising organization that supports stem cell research nationwide. The views expressed in the letter were not those of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s board, Klein said, nor of any of the other patient advocacy groups of which he is a member.
Board and staff members of Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, which operates out of the office of Klein’s financial firm, followed up the letter with election day telephone calls to some of the letter’s recipients.
Klein said he wanted to issue the letter Friday, after reading a San Diego Union Tribune article about Ortiz’s repeated attempts to introduce legislation that would add more government control to the stem cell initiative known as Proposition 71.
Klein was attending an all-day meeting of the stem cell institute’s board Friday. It was not possible for the Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures board and staff to approve the letter until Monday, Klein said.
Ortiz declined to comment on the letter.
Public advocates and at least one member of the stem cell institute’s board said the issue was not so much the content of the letter as whether Klein should be involved at all in campaigning. Institute board member Jeff Sheehy said Klein’s letter “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
“The larger question here is the appropriateness of the chair of a state agency, especially a man who has been very insistent on having operational responsibilities of the institute, having his own political action committee,” Sheehy said.
“It just doesn’t seem appropriate to me.”
Other members of the board contacted yesterday were not aware of the letter. The institute staff said it had nothing to do with the letter, directing all questions about it to Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures.
The existence of the organization took Sheehy and the public advocacy groups by surprise. They said they thought Klein had relinquished all stem cell advocacy positions outside the stem cell institute’s board.
Klein remembers differently.
The group under which he sent out the letter originally was called Californians for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures and was the fundraising machine for Proposition 71, which was approved by voters in November 2004. The name was changed last year to reflect its new focus on supporting stem cell research initiatives in other states and federally, Klein said.
He said that he told the press and public advocates in February 2005 that he planned to stay with the organization to help it raise $1 million for continuing campaign efforts and to pay off Proposition 71‘s $1.4 million campaign debt.
Klein said he agreed only to relinquish his position in the nonprofit educational organization now known at the Alliance for Stem Cell Research.
Sheehy said he didn’t see much difference between the two organizations.
“I feel like I’ve been lied to, like there’s been a bait and switch,” he said.
The Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, another public advocacy group following the stem cell initiative, also criticized Klein’s involvement in the advocacy organization. Its members also disagree with some of the points made in Klein’s letter.
Jesse Reynolds of the Oakland center said that Klein’s letter points out that SB 401’s co-sponsor is Runner, a conservative who has been described as “virulently anti-embryonic stem cell research.” And it goes on to say: “Strange bedfellows: Ortiz and the far right.”
“When you look at Senator Ortiz’s history of involvement with Proposition 71, it’s not accurate,” Reynolds said. “She was the first to propose a bond initiative. Klein wouldn’t be where he is today without Ortiz.”
Ortiz’s role in the creation of Proposition 71 is a point of contention with Klein.
Ortiz sponsored legislation that made stem cell research legal in California, part of the groundwork for Proposition 71, which would come later.
In 2004, she began talking to leading stem cell scientists about proposing a voter initiative.
Klein points out that Ortiz had nothing to do with writing the initiative. which he wrote with other patient advocates.
Days after Proposition 71 was passed — as scientists and ethicists were gathered in Irvine by the National Academies of Science to begin hashing out how to establish medical and ethical standards and policies for the state stem cell institute — Ortiz introduced her first bill to alter Proposition 71.
Since then, Klein said, “she has co-sponsored her legislation with the most conservative, anti-stem cell element in the Senate in a ‘grandstanding’ attempt to impose her personal view of how the proposition should be changed.”
Ortiz said in a previous interview that she thinks her legislation forced the institute’s leadership to negotiate changes that give the initiative more public accountability.
In his letter, Klein said the real credit for changes to toughen policies and standards of the institute were worked out with Bowen, and Sens. Don Perata, D-East Bay; Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove; and Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco.
Ortiz broke off with these senators when she couldn’t get them to accept her agenda, Klein said, and now is trying to add layers of bureaucracy and cost to the initiative.
Simpson of the Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights said the battle between Klein and Ortiz is a waste of energy.
“I don’t want to get involved in that food fight and I don’t think that most people who care about stem cell research want to either,” he said.
Sheehy also would not parse the content of the letter.
“I never understood what the conflict was between Bob and Deborah,” Sheehy said. “Frankly, they’ve hurt themselves, they hurt the agency and they’ve hurt the issue.”
Contact the author Terri Somers at: (619) 293-2028; [email protected]