Thursday, June 30, 2011

CIRM's New Chair to Sell Stem Cell Stocks Shortly but Continue Link with Bond Firm

The new chairman of the $3 billion California stem cell agency, Jonathan Thomas, says he will soon sell his interests in a California stem cell company but will retain his financial ties to a bond investment firm, pending a double-check with the agency's outside counsel.

As part of his pitch for the $400,000 post as the chair of CIRM, Thomas, a bond financier and partner in Saybrook Capital of Santa Monica, Ca., said he led an earlier round of financing for Advanced Cell Technology, also of Santa Monica, Ca. He said he still owned a "small portion" of the company's stock and was prepared to liquidate it to avoid any conflicts. He also said he has no other "actual or potential conflicts."

The California Stem Cell Report queried Thomas via email concerning the timing of the sale and also his relationship with Saybrook. The firm posted a news release this week congratulating Thomas and declaring that it was looking forward to a continuing and flourishing relationship with him.

In response to our query, Thomas, who is being paid $400,000 a year for 4/5 time by CIRM, said,
"With respect to ACT, I will be selling my interests very shortly.  Re Saybrook, we don't buy or underwrite (nor have ever bought or underwritten) any State of California GO's (state general obligation bonds).  No conflict of any kind there.  Re severing ties with Saybrook, I have been previously advised that there are no conflicts maintaining affiliations with the firm.  Just to get additional input on both issues, though, I will check again with (the CIRM) Board counsel and advise."
(Thomas later said that no conflicts existed with Saybrook and indicated he was continuing his financial relationship with the firm.)

Advanced Cell Technology reportedly applied for a loan in the $50 million CIRM clinical trial round this spring. No action was reported on the application, but financial scuttlebutt has it that ACT is line for a CIRM loan later this year.

As for the California state bonds, the stem cell agency relies on the state to borrow money for its funding and has no other real source of cash. Saybrook specializes in distressed government bonds. Currently California has the lowest bond rankings of any state in the nation.

Prior to the election for chairman, we asked the CIRM board counsel, James Harrison of Remcho Johansen & Purcell of San Leandro, Ca., whether the board required the chair candidates, including Thomas, to file a written disclosure of financial interest. Harrison said,
"We have discussed the state's disclosure and disqualification rules with both candidates."
But he said no written disclosure was required in advance of board action.

As of this year, the stem cell agency has begun posting the state-required financial disclosure forms of its board members and top officials. Thomas is required to file his within 30 days of assuming office, which would be July 23.

As chair, Thomas will be working with the office of state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who controls the sale of state bonds. One of the mechanisms Thomas will operate through is the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Finance Committee, a six-member body created by Prop. 71, which also created the stem cell agency. The committee determines whether it is "necessary or desirable" to sell bonds for CIRM. In addition to sitting on the committee, Thomas can appoint two members. The other members are the state treasurer, state controller and state director of finance.

In its press release on Thomas, Saybrook said,
"'JT (Jon Thomas) is the best man for the job. I’ve known him since our high school tennis days and he brings an impressive skill set to the position,' said Jon Schotz, partner at Saybrook Capital, LLC and Jon Thomas’s graduate school roommate at Yale.

"Jonathan Rosenthal, also a partner at Saybrook Capital, LLC says: 'I couldn’t be happier for JT. We’ve had a wonderful partnership and friendship for the past 20 years and expect that it will continue to flourish.'"
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