State stem-cell institute’s hiring called into question

Published on

The San Jose Mercury News (California)
February 8, 2008

by Steve Johnson, Mercury News


California’s $3 billion stem-cell institute hired a public relations
outfit through its lawyers in order to keep the PR firm’s advice secret
after the institute’s new president was linked to an investigation of
another person, a consumer group claimed Thursday.

But officials with the California Institute for Regenerative
Medicine said there was nothing improper about its dealings with the PR

The Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer
Rights said it learned of the institute’s contract with the New York
public relations firm, Rubenstein Associates, in documents it obtained
recently through a Public Records Act request.

The records describe how the institute hired Rubenstein
Associates last year through the stem-cell agency’s outside legal
counsel, Remcho, Johansen & Purcell.

When Remcho’s James Harrison wrote Rubenstein to retain the PR
firm, he said it was to help respond to a news story about the
institute’s recently appointed president, Alan Trounson. The story
reported that an Australian scientist who had worked with Trounson was
being investigated over "inconsistencies" in the scientist’s research.
Trounson was not investigated.

Although the documents say part of Rubenstein’s job was to
provide "litigation support as necessary," they also suggest institute
officials were concerned about how Trounson and other institute matters
were being characterized in the media.

Because of that, the consumer group took issue with an Oct. 15
letter from Rubenstein to Remcho confirming that Rubenstein’s dealings
with the institute "will be governed, to the extent permitted by law,
by attorney/client privilege."

"PR advice is not legal advice and trying to pretend differently is just plain wrong," the group charged in a news release.

But the institute disputed that in a statement it issued Thursday.

"Rubenstein was hired because at the time, CIRM had no
communications officer to provide advice and research on the Australian
articles and related legal matters," the statement said.

"In addition, they were hired via our outside attorney because
the confidential investigation taking place in Australia may have had
legal ramifications for CIRM and knowledge about what was taking place
in this area was important for CIRM legal counsel to understand."

Consumer Watchdog
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