Viewpoints: Stem Cell Chief Needs To Let Go Of The Reins

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The following Op-Ed commentary by John M. Simpson was published in the Sacramento Bee on Tuesday, December 14, 2010:


As his six-year term comes to an end, Bob Klein should be high-fiving his way around a victory lap, basking in accolades for his substantial accomplishments as the first chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Instead, unable to transcend a propensity to micro-manage, he tried to pull strings behind the scenes to anoint his successor. Inevitably the effort blew up in his face, embarrassing him and his choice for the job, and causing collateral damage to the image of the agency's governing board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

In attempting to anoint his successor, Klein tried to create new criteria for the chair's position not specified in Proposition 71, which created the agency and was passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2004. He proudly claims credit for writing the initiative, which he apparently cites when it is convenient and flagrantly flouts when it is not.

Qualifications for the chair's position spelled out in Proposition 71 match Klein's résumé as a real estate investment banker and stem cell advocate. The law requires the chair to have a familiarity with bond financing. But now Klein has decreed the next chair should be a scientist.

Klein's shenanigans do matter when you remember that CIRM is costing taxpayers $6 billion, and that his choice was in line for an annual salary in the half-million dollar range.

Indeed, how CIRM is governed and whether the board steps up and exercises appropriate oversight could spell the difference between CIRM's successfully funding $3 billion in cutting edge research or becoming a boondoggle that is a monument to wasteful spending.

Here's what happened: Under Proposition 71, the governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer and controller each get to nominate a candidate for the chair and vice chair of the citizens oversight committee. The board then elects the officers.

Controller John Chiang did due diligence and solicited suggestions. He ultimately decided to nominate current Vice Chairman Art Torres for chair and board member Jeff Sheehy as the new vice chair.

Meanwhile, Klein took it upon himself to recruit Alan Bernstein, a scientist and head of HIV Global Vaccine Enterprise of New York. Bernstein was the chairman of a group of outside experts that was reviewing CIRM's operations.

Klein persuaded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado to nominate Bernstein. He also set up a dinner with the candidates, board members Ted Love and Robert Birgeneau. Birgeneau is the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and rarely bothers to attend ICOC meetings. He is, however, according The California Stem Cell Report, a former colleague and friend of Bernstein. The board's outside counsel, James Harrison of Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, also attended. If the parley didn't violate the state's open meeting laws, it came perilously close.

Of course the media learned about the dinner. Some reports raised questions about the possibility of a conflict of interest in Bernstein heading the review panel and then being tapped for the CIRM chairmanship.

Citing a dubious provision of California law that supposedly would require the chair to be a U.S. citizen, Bernstein was cast aside because he is a Canadian citizen and his name withdrawn by Schwarzenegger and Maldonado. They then nominated Bob Klein, who pledges to serve only as long as it takes to find a successor.

So what should the citizens oversight committee do to restore a modicum of reason to the succession process?

Do not take Klein at his word. When Proposition 71 was passed, he vowed to serve only a couple of years as chairman, without pay.

Six years later, he is in the job, now officially defined as a half-time position, drawing $150,000 a year and renominated to a second term.

There is no reason for the committee to act now; Wednesday's vote should be canceled. All pending nominations should be withdrawn. If the board doesn't elect a successor, Klein continues until one is selected. If he is elected to a second term, based on past history, he'll likely be around in six years.

The citizens oversight committee and its governance committee must have a serious public discussion about the sort of candidate required; it's clear the constitutional officers would welcome the input. New nominations can be made and an election held by March.

CIRM already has a world-renowned $500,000-a-year stem cell scientist, President Alan Trounson. There's no need to spend another half million. Moreover, bringing in an outsider to chair the ICOC makes no sense.

There are two eminently qualified candidates: Current vice chairs Art Torres and Duane Roth. Bob Klein needs to get out of the way so one of them can ultimately be elected.


Reach John M. Simpson at [email protected].

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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