Monday, January 07, 2008

Limos, Meals and More at CIRM

Ten months ago, the California state auditor took the California stem cell agency to task for sloppy bookkeeping and excessive travel and meal expenses.

The auditor found fault with lunches that cost $36, dinners that cost $65, pricey air travel and chauffeured limos, which the auditor said that CIRM preferred to describe as "large-sized vehicles" with hired drivers.

moved quickly to clean up its procedures for its staff. But the problems identified by the auditor involving CIRM directors remain uncorrected. Today, however, the director's subcommittee on governance will take a crack at a new travel policy for both directors (members of the Oversight Committee) and staff.

In at least one regard, the proposed new policies appear to roll back one of the changes backed by the auditor: elimination of the use of chauffeured cars. Whether the policies meet the auditor's standards in other areas is difficult to tell, but the complex documents contain ample flexibility, which some might call loopholes.

Normal limits on per diem expenses could be waived for foreign travel in the case of "a special event or function, e.g., a national or international sports event." First class air travel could be possibly permitted in the case of "unduly long layovers" or in the case of undefined "medical needs." And the use of limos would be permitted to and from an airport or railroad station.

The proposed travel policies to be considered this afternoon were not posted until late Friday on the CIRM web site. Missing were two important documents that should have been created in formulating the new rules. One would show how the new policy meets the problems detected in the audit last year. Another would show how the proposed CIRM policy diverges from the University of California travel policy on which it is based(another issue in the audit). A possible third document would show how the new policy is changed from the existing policy and how the proposed staff and director policies diverge from each other.

The state auditor did not wait until her report was published in February of last year to tell CIRM about some of the problems she had detected. Former CIRM President Zach Hall dealt early on with many of the issues involving staff. But as for the travel policies for CIRM directors, the audit stated, "According to the institute president, institute staff did not presume to suggest a policy for the committee." Dealing with those is the responsibility of Chairman Robert Klein.

In terms of raw dollars, the amounts involved in CIRM travel and expenses are piddling compared to its whopping multimillion dollar grants, probably not more than a few hundred thousand dollars although details cannot be found in the latest CIRM budget documents. But talk of chauffeured limos and $65 dinners does not sit well with the public or the media. Few persons can understand what $1 billion means. It is much easier for your average Californian, who is paying $4 a gallon for gas in some locations, to grasp a vision of limos and luxury lunches – an image that does not serve CIRM well.

(Editor's note: Some of the rules for expenses are linked to a "business meeting expenditure policy" that is yet to be approved or posted on the CIRM web site.)

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