Thursday, June 23, 2005

Rebel Stem Cell Directors Not Happy with Klein

Dissident directors of the California stem cell agency took a crack at chairman Robert Klein, who barely fended off their move earlier this week.

The rebellion occurred at a little-noticed meeting Monday night of the agency's new legislative subcommittee and was reported exclusively this morning in a column by Stuart Leavenworth, associate editor of The Sacramento Bee and the only journalist attending the session.

The issue that triggered the flap was the chairmanship of the committee, according to Leavenworth.

"Although Klein convened the subcommittee assuming he would chair it, he quickly confronted an internal coup," Leavenworth reported.

Stem cell Oversight Committee member Joan Samuelson "bluntly suggested that Klein is becoming a political liability."

"'Bob has become a lightning rod and it is a difficult thing to deal with,' she said."

Another Oversight Committee member Jeff Sheehy said, "We are getting killed by the press. We are getting killed by the Legislature. We are getting killed by people who support us."

Leavenworth continued:

"The subcommittee has good reason to be angry. In recent months, Klein has hired lobbyists and public relations firms without consulting his fellow board members. A millionaire developer from the Bay Area, he has picked some of his personal aides to be institute employees. At one point he proposed an organizational chart that gave him his own exclusive staff, including the institute's legal counsel.

"All the while, Klein and the institute have treated all critics as enemies. Although embryonic stem cell research faces opposition from conservative Christians, some of the institute's most vocal critics have been groups such as Common Cause and Californians Aware, who do not oppose stem cell research but want the agency to operate more openly.

"There are also critics such the Pro-Choice Alliance Against Proposition 71, whose leaders fear the biomedical industry holds too much sway over this public body.

"After more than an hour of heated debate, the subcommittee deadlocked 5-5 on a motion that would effectively demote Klein as the institute's political leader.

"That's when Edward Penhoet, founder of Chiron Corp. and vice chair of the institute's oversight board, stepped in to give Klein a one-vote margin. Penhoet's participation was somewhat surprising, given that the institute, in its prior press release, didn't even list him as a legislative subcommittee member.

"In the end, Klein was saved not by his fellow patient advocates, but by a Southern California contingent of industrialists and academics who serve on the institute's oversight board. These included Tina Nova, CEO of a San Diego biomedical firm; Dr. John Reed, president of the La Jolla-based Burnham Institute; Susan Bryant, dean of biological sciences at UC Irvine; and Richard Murphy, president of the Salk Institute. (Murphy is also a director of the California Healthcare Institute, a biomedical industry group that has lobbyied against tougher conflict-of-interest rules for the stem cell program.)"

Separately, The Bee editorialized on the agency's new disclosure requirements.

"Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, deserves credit for nudging California's institute in the right direction with her proposed constitutional amendment, SCA 13. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, bowing to pressure from Klein's allies, Sens. Joe Dunn and Jackie Speier, has now put that measure on hold. He shouldn't bury it, however," The Bee wrote.

"Within the stem cell institute, eminent doctors and patient advocates are staging a rebellion against Klein....If lawmakers keep the pressure on, the truly independent members of the institute's oversight committee may feel emboldened to go beyond Klein and his marginal policy enhancements. At that point, critics will no longer be tempted to describe the institute as a 'quasi-public agency.'"

Leavenworth's column demonstrated the value of diligent reporting (as in sitting through yet another tedious meeting). It will be interesting to see what other media do to play catch-up. Sphere: Related Content

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