State stem-cell institute’s hiring called into question

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The San Jose Mercury News (California)

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 firm.

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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