Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Stem Cell Agency and its $2.4 Million Legal Costs: Proposal to Add Staff Lawyer Slips Away

The California stem cell agency has dropped a plan to add an additional lawyer to its staff on top of its $2.4 million yearly legal budget.

The proposal was eliminated from the agency's spending plan for the fiscal year beginning in July after it ran afoul of complaints in April from Art Torres, co-vice chairman of the agency, that legal spending was "awfully bloated."

At the time, CIRM's President Alan Trounson and general counsel Elona Baum argued, however, that the position was needed to protect CIRM's intellectual property. They said that grantee institutions were failing to take necessary steps to protect the IP and were putting CIRM "at risk."

The discussion occurred during a public meeting, but was settled behind the scenes before last month's approval of the budget by the CIRM board of directors. Instead of containing $221,000 for salary and benefits for another lawyer, the budget contained $203,000 for an external contract for the IP legal work.

The issue of hiring additional staff has implications beyond the most obvious. CIRM is laboring under a legal budget cap that hampers its operational flexibility. Plus the agency will move into a shutdown mode in about five years unless it derives a new source of financing.

During the April discussion, Baum cited a "very in-depth memo" justifying the addition of an attorney but did not present it at the time. The California Stem Cell Report subsequently asked the agency for a copy. The first version that CIRM supplied consisted of a single page and was mostly a list of tasks. It was also heavily expurgated by CIRM, although the agency did not initially disclose that information had been removed. The actual document turned out to be two pages long but still was something less than in-depth.

CIRM said the information was removed under attorney-client privilege. CIRM spokesman Kevin McCormack said it contained "reflections and advice about particular legal issues" from Baum to Trounson.

Our take: It is poor management to place privileged information in what should be a routine budget justification for adding staff. The result is a breakdown in openness on the part of the California stem cell agency. It is not the first time that CIRM has hidden information under attorney-client privilege. In 2008, the agency concealed public relations advice from a New York firm using that rationale. The matter involved an Australian researcher "under investigation for improprieties who worked in the stem cell laboratory run by CIRM's incoming President Dr. Alan Trounson," CIRM said at the time.

A final note on budget matters at the May board meeting: With little discussion, the board approved an overall budget of $17.9 million for coming fiscal year, an 8.5 percent increase over the estimated $16.5 million spending for the current fiscal year. The budget calls for a handful of new hires, raising the size of the staff of the $3 billion agency to the equivalent of 59.

CIRM Chairman J.T. Thomas also told the board the agency is assured of cash for its operations and research funding through the end of this year. CIRM relies on money borrowed by the state – general obligation bonds. However, under an arrangementarrived at last year, the funding is being provided through short-term borrowing – commercial paper. The state expects to offer another round of bonds this fall, but it is not clear whether CIRM bonds will be included. Gov. Jerry Brown is adamant about reducing the cost of state borrowing, which has skyrocketed in recent years.

Here is a copy of Baum's memo.
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