Friday, April 21, 2006

More Disclosure Needed in $1 Million CIRM Gala

One good rule in life is to avoid unnecessary pain.

Sometimes CIRM has difficulty with that. The latest example is the $1 million fundraiser next month to benefit the agency.

It is a unique effort for a unique agency. But it has kicked up a bit of a ruckus. Fundraisers are commonly used by politicians to attract campaign funds from donors who seek to influence or gain access. In this case, financially strapped CIRM is involved in an enterprise that could see biotech businesses – ultimate beneficiaries of CIRM's program – giving tens of thousands of dollars to the agency that they later may approach for million dollar grants.

All of this is going on presumably without the disclosure of the names of the donors as is required for political campaigns.

Already the gala fundraiser, which showcases Julie Andrews, has generated sharp criticism from The Sacramento Bee, which said the situation is "analogous to what might happen if Caltrans started seeking private donations to build a new San Francisco Bay Bridge.

"Funding for the bridge is stymied, so 'Friends of Caltrans' hold a gala fundraiser. Out of self interest, bridge contractors rush to buy tickets. Those contributing hope they will get special status when bridge contracts are awarded, and possibly they will."
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said the event puts CIRM "up for sale." It would not be surprising to see more criticism and pain for CIRM as the visibility of the event increases.

Some of this pain could have been avoided if CIRM itself had announced that it was participating in the fundraiser. If this is an event that CIRM is proud of, it should have been the first to disclose it. Instead news of the event oozed out, creating a less than savory impression. The way the announcement was handled raises questions about the role of the Edelman PR firm, which has a hefty contract with CIRM. Edelman should have known about the fundraiser and should have advised CIRM about how to avoid some of the negative publicity. If Edelman did not know about the event, it is either not doing its job or information is being withheld by CIRM from Edelman.

As for the propriety of the event, Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, told us,
"My primary concern is the lack of disclosure. I am not as upset as some of those who are quoted about the actual fundraising itself."
He noted that the University of Californa and the state college system accept contributions. He added that the Fair Political Practices Commission, also a financially troubled agency, has the authority to do similar fundraising but never has as far he knows.

We believe disclosure of the names of all the donors to the fundraiser would be a good first step for CIRM in complying with its pledges to adhere to the highest standards of openness and transparency.

We recognize CIRM's financial realities and the unique nature of its private-public bureaucractic DNA, so to speak. To deal with those realities, perhaps CIRM should consider another type of fundraising that would leverage its base of support. CIRM officials repeatedly point to the 59 percent approval of Prop. 71 as justifying many of their actions. Why not tap that base for mom-and-pop size contributions as political campaigns did so successfully in 2004? Thousands or tens of thousands of grassroots contributions, ranging from $10 and up, do not carry the onus of hefty sums from the biotech industry. Such a mechanism could easily be built into CIRM's website, which is currently being redesigned by Zoomedia of San Francisco – a gratis contribution by Zoomedia as part of San Francisco's successful bid for the CIRM headquarters. Sphere: Related Content

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