Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Hiring and Appearances, Integrity and Bags of Swag

California's stem cell agency wants to know. Can somebody that you associated with impugn your character, even unfairly? That is one of the very personal questions that must be answered by job applicants to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Might your income or investments present an “appearance” of a conflict of interest? Yes or no. Have you written a letter-to-the-editor on “any particular controversial issue?” Yes or no. Is there anything in your background that could embarrass us? Yes or no.

Please explain is the request if you respond in the affirmative.

The inquiries are part of the job application form on CIRM's web site. All are also on the same form for applicants for position of interim CEO of the agency.

The questions seem to be testimony to how seriously CIRM takes the concerns about conflicts of interest, accountability and integrity. They are tough questions, ones that would make many of us uncomfortable. They go way beyond inquiries that this writer dealt with in 1975 when he worked for the governor of California, who also happened to be the sponsor of the state's first and only major economic disclosure law. But that was before Enron and Worldcom, Irangate and Monicagate.

Some might regard the inquiries on the CIRM application as a personal invasion. Nonetheless, they are certainly legitimate questions to be asked of aspirants for top positions at the agency, which is likely to be subjected to excruciatingly close scrutiny by its foes. If you are doing the hiring for such jobs, you need to know the very worst about the people you are considering. One recent spectacular failure to do so came in the Bush administration with the former police commissioner from New York.

On the other hand, one must ask whether such questions discourage good candidates? The answer? Yes, they do. It is currently a major problem and an unfortunate reality that pervades all of public life. But, if you have bones in the closet, you or your agency's enemies are going to drag them into scandalous public view.

Should these employment questions apply as well to lower level employees, such as clerks? I am sad to say, yes. It is a terrible imposition to ask a $25,000-a-year or so employee to face such inquiries. But there is ample history of low level employees leaking sensitive information when properly primed by those seeking the information.

Little doubt exists that some not-so-ethical private sector folks are likely to tempt both the big and little cheeses at CIRM with large bags of swag for information. Extremely valuable intellectual property will be housed at the stem cell agency, including trade secrets and confidential research. The stakes are huge. CIRM will be giving away $300 million a year. But that is nothing compared to what the ultimate profits might be on a successful stem cell venture.

The questions on the application are a good first step at ensuring CIRM's integrity. The new agency is already under fire concerning conflicts of interest, an issue that CIRM will have to live with because it will never go away, given the nature of the law that created it.

That said, putting the questions on the application is not enough. The written responses must be buttressed by probing interviews with applicants by several persons. All too often, the formalities of applications become overwhelmed by a boss who wants a particular person, often with good reason.

One might also ask whether members of the oversight committee faced identical questions prior to their appointments. It is doubtful. You could argue that nearly all of them come from positions with high public visibility and have publicly known and respected track records. Thus they are safe appointments. However, that is what President Bush also thought about a certain police commissioner.

As for you readers out there, we would like to know whether you would answer these questions. If not, why not? Please send your replies to djensen@californiastemcellreport.blogspot.com. We will publish at least portions of the responses.

Here are some additional samples of the actual questions from the application form, which can be found at this
site. Look for it at the very bottom of the page.

“Do you own real property, personal property, financial holdings or receive income from any source which might present a potential conflict of interest or appearance of conflict of interest with your requested appointment?

“Have you been publicly identified, in person or by organizational members, with a particularly controversial national, state or local issue?

“Have you ever submitted oral or written views to any government authority or the news media, on any particular controversial issue other than in an official government capacity?

“Have you ever had any association with any person or group or business venture which could be used, even unfairly, to impugn or question your character and qualifications for the requested appointment?

“Do you know anyone who might take any steps, overtly or covertly, to oppose your appointment?

“Is there anything in your background which if made known to the general public through your appointment would cause an embarrassment to you and/or the administration?”

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