Thursday, May 05, 2005

The $10,000-a-Month Stem Cell Lobbyist

In an unusual move, the California stem cell agency has hired a private and influential lobbyist at a rate of nearly $10,000 a month to represent it in the state Capitol.

Few if any state agencies hire private lobbyists. Instead they rely on civil servants to appear before legislative committees and handle the myriad of details of the legislative process. California cities and counties, however, do hire Sacramento lobbyists.

The stem cell agency has contracted with Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller and Nayor of Sacramento to carry its legislative water. The five-month contract is capped at $49,900 with a monthly retainer of $9,600, billed in advance. The firm bills at rates of up to $645 an hour for attorney time.

Gene Erbin, one of two attorneys in the firm focusing on the stem cell agency, said the firm helped draft Prop. 71 and represented the campaign organization during last fall's election. Erbin indicated that some state agencies use private lobbyists, but did not give any specific examples. A spokeswoman for the California Secretary of State's office, which regulates lobbyists, said she did not know offhand of any state agency with private lobbyists.

Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said, “Obviously, the stem cell agency is unique because it was done by initiative and because the legislature (or some legislators) want to amend its law substantially (and also because it has its own budget.)

“I don’t have a problem with state agencies having lobbyists but I believe that they should be state employees, rather than private contractors. It is more efficient (they are full time and less expensive), and the employees don’t have other clients.”

The Nielsen firm has a blue chip list of clients, including some in the health industry. They include Genentech, Merck and Pfizer. The Wall Street Journal on April 12, in a story by Antonio Regalado, reported that Merck had been involved in stem cell research.

In a contract letter to the stem cell agency, Steven Merksamer, a member of the firm's management committee and one of its founders, said that it is “virtually inevitable” that the firm will work on projects for other clients that have “different governmental or political objectives or views.”

He added that because of the diversity of the firm's practice, “it is certainly possible, even likely” that the firm will represent other clients with interests that are “adverse” to those of the stem cell agency “but which are not directly related to the matters for which you are retaining us.”

Merksamer, once chief of staff to then Gov. Deukmejian, also said that the firm is not legally a “consultant” that makes a governmental decision and thus is not subject to economic disclosure.

Erbin was once a legislative consultant to Democratic legislative committee chairmen and is a specialist on initiatives. Jim Gross is the other member of the firm focusing on the agency. He is an expert on health issues. Sphere: Related Content

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