Friday, February 13, 2009

Financially Troubled CIRM Hires $200,000 Federal Lobbyist

The California stem cell agency has hired one of Washington's more influential lobbyists, The Podesta Group, to promote a $10 billion biomedical industry aid package being pushed by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein.

In response to an inquiry, Don Gibbons, CIRM communications chief, today said a contract had been signed with the firm, which was founded by Tony Podesta (see photo) in 1988. Gibbons did not disclose the value of the contract, but Podesta proposed a $200,000, 10-month deal in keeping with the terms of CIRM's request for proposals. Travel and other expenses incurred by Podesta would add to the total cost. The lobbying proposal also does not include travel expenses to Washington, D.C., for Klein, other CIRM directors or staff.

The losing firms were Van Scoyoc Associates and Hogan & Hartson.

Earlier we requested a copy of the 15-page Podesta proposal, which is a public record. Gibbons supplied a heavily censored version. More than five key pages were missing, leaving only their titles: "situation analysis" and "strategic framework."
Asked for an explanation for removal of the material, Gibbons quoted CIRM legal staff as saying,
"The Public Records Act incorporates, as an exemption, the trade secret privilege found in the Evidence Code.  Each responder was given the opportunity to assert that privilege for any part of the proposal it claims as a trade secret."
Without seeing the five removed pages, it is impossible to evaluate the Podesta proposal or whether it is realistic to expect any sort of result from the expenditure of $200,000 in California taxpayer funds. It is also clear that much of the bowdlerized, analytical material would likely consist of little more than what can be read in newspapers, industry publications and online information sources.

Most of the remaining material amounts to boilerplate descriptions of the firm and its work. However, Podesta did strike a ambitious chord or two, indicating that it would lobby for federal cash directly for the agency and would attempt to make CIRM a major biomedical player in the nation's capital.

Podesta wrote,
"Faced with the prospect of being unable to fund previously approved research and facilities grants, CIRM needs federal support in the form of appropriations, loan guarantees, and /or other measures to finance its research program through the end of calendar year 2010...."
In addition to grabbing some cash right now, Podesta said,
"Our strategy also positions CIRM to play a major role in shaping longer-term federal policies on biomedical research in general and stem cells in particular."
The firm said it is "the longest-tenured Washington representative of the pioneer biotech companies – Genzyme, Genentech and Amgen." It also represents Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics and Novo Nordisk. Business Week has labelled The Podesta Group as one of seven "Uber-influencers: The Lobbyists Likely to thrive in the New Washington."

The hiring of the lobbyist has drawn fire from at least one critic, John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., who has called it an unnecessary, costly diversion from CIRM's stem cell research mission in California.

Simpson raised questions about the federal lobbying plan as early as CIRM's board meeting late last month. He specifically mentioned its $200,000 expense.

By that time the request for lobbying proposals, including its cost, had been on the CIRM website for two days. In response to Simpson, however, Klein said,
"The dollar amount of that is completely unknown at this time. It's in order to attract proposals and see what we have and what resources we need. So we're in an investigation stage of that."
Klein made that statement the morning of Jan. 30, the transcript of the meeting shows. The deadline for the proposals was 5 p.m. later that day with selection of a lobbyist scheduled for as early as two business days later.

We have raised additional questions with CIRM's Gibbons. They include whether CIRM's legal staff agrees that only "trade secrets" were removed from the Podesta proposal, whether all the material was removed at Podesta's request and whether CIRM removed material without a request from Podesta. The questions also include terms of the contract, whether the firm has actually begun work and whether Klein is seeking financial support from grantee institutions to pay for Podesta.

We will carry Gibbons' responses when we receive them.

If you would like copies of all three lobbying proposals, send an email to Sphere: Related Content

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