Monday, April 17, 2006

$1 million CIRM Fundraiser Stirs Critics

How could Mary Poppins do this?

But the question some are also asking is how could the California stem cell agency do this? Specifically, participate in an unprecedented $1 million fundraiser for CIRM, probably the first state agency to raise cash for its operations in such a fashion and on such a scale.

Actress Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins fame, among others, is featured in the black-tie gala that will take place in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda on May 22. Sponsors of the event – called Reach for Tomorrow, Research Today – say it is the "largest event in our country's history to benefit stem cell research."

For $10,000 a head, donors are offered a private tour of Mission Bay (San Francisco not San Diego), Stanford and UC San Francisco stem cell research laboratories, two tickets to a private scientific briefing, a VIP reception prior to dinner and a full page acknowledgement in the event program. Or for $1,500, the buyer receives one ticket to the dinner and "gala performance." Tickets to the performance only go for $35 to $100.

The event carries CIRM's official imprimatur. Its chairman, Robert Klein, vice chair Ed Penhoet, and president, Zach Hall, are honorary co-chairs of the event, sponsored by the San Francisco Foundation, which dealt out $65 million in 2004 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The fundraiser puts CIRM "up for sale," said John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights of Santa Monica, Ca.

Simpson said,
"CIRM must not create the appearance that a biotech executive -- or other person wising to curry favor -- can do so and exercise undue influence by writing a big enough check."
He continued,
"Most Californians' comments are limited to three minutes when items are discussed at your public committee meetings and hearings. Now you are offering exclusive private access to those with enough money.

"CIRM must not solicit donations by offering donors benefits not available to the public."
The Sacramento Bee editorialized Sunday on the glittering affair:
"What is wrong with this picture? Plenty, if you think that public stewards of taxpayer money should keep at arm's length from those seeking that money. By agreeing to participate in the fundraiser, Hall, Klein and Penhoet have flunked this test."
In response to our query, Nicole Pagano, spokeswoman for the agency, said:
"The CIRM is not involved in the outreach or soliciting of funds for the gala. We remain grateful to Debra Strobin and her team for their efforts to support this agency."
Organizing the event is Strobin, the wife of Edward Strobin, former Banana Republic chief operating officer who died of cancer in 2000. She said in a press release:
"There is great hope in the knowledge that stem cell research can provide, and I am frustrated by the incredible delays in enabling this research to take hold. I want this event to elevate awareness of stem cell research and its potential value to people like my husband who had very little chance to conquer his form of cancer."
In scientific stem cell circles, sometimes folks refer to stem cell experiments that might generate a "yuck" response. This government experiment is close to reaching that level.

Fundraising is commonplace in political and charity circles. In the case of politics, the persons and firms buying the tickets are required by law to be publicly identified. In the case of this fundraiser, they are not. But it would behoove CIRM to post a list of contributors, including in-kind efforts, on its web site. Such a requirement should be added as well to Sen. Deborah Ortiz' measure, SB401, to tighten oversight over the agency.

The creation of CIRM was a unique blend of private and public affairs. It has built-in conflicts of interest that are legal but troubling to many. The only assurance of integrity is full public disclosure of its affairs, including this fundraiser.

At least that is how Mary Poppins, our proper British nanny, would probably see it. Sphere: Related Content

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