Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Klein Donation: Top Stem Cell Agency Execs, Lawyers Aware of Gift but Fail to Report It

A number of top level executives, in addition to six lawyers, at the California stem cell agency knew of Robert Klein's $21,630 donation in May of last year although they failed to report it to the agency's board as required by agency regulations.

As a result, the 29 directors were not aware of the gift when Klein, former chairman of the agency, appeared before them two months later and successfully asked them to override a grant reviewer decision rejecting a $20 million award to StemCells, Inc., of  Newark, Ca. It was the first time in the eight year history of the agency that its board had approved an application rejected twice by its scientific reviewers. The proposal had been given a score of 61 out of 100. The board rejected higher scoring applications in that particular round.

According to a person familiar with the agency, members of its executive committee, some of whom are lawyers, were aware of the Klein donation in May. Other lawyers not on the executive committee knew as well. Previously, it was not known that the donation was known so widely among CIRM executives and lawyers. It also was not clear that they knew that Klein intended to appear before the board in July. At the time of his donation, reviewers had already rejected the StemCells, Inc., application but it was not supposed to be publicly known.

Most of the CIRM executives and lawyers aware of the gift were also present at a public meeting of the CIRM board in May as well as July but did not alert the board to board to the donation.

Last week, an agency spokesman said the failure to report the Klein gift was  “due to the lack of additional donations, a transition in CIRM’s finance office and an oversight."

The board will be formally told of the gift at next week's board meeting, more than a year after it was made.

The donation by Klein, a Palo Alto, Ca., real estate investment banker, financed a trip by six CIRM science officers to Japan for an international stem cell conference. CIRM President Alan Trounson subsequently directed the officers to give special access to Klein, among other favors Trounson granted Klein. Two of the officers were heavily involved in the grant round that included the StemCells, Inc., application. The science officers participate in the application of the closed-door review process but do not vote on proposals. Trounson excused himself from participation in public discussion of the StemCells, Inc., application because of his relationship with the company's founder, researcher Irv Weissman of Stanford University. 

The board vote approving the application was a narrow 7-5. It is not clear whether the vote would have changed if the board had been informed publicly about Klein's gift. But it would have heightened concerns that Klein was using his six-year service as chairman of the agency plus the donation to sway the board, which rarely overturns the decisions of its scientific reviewers. CIRM directors go along with reviewer decisions on 98 percent of applications, according to agency calculations.

One of the votes in favor of Klein's position came from Art Torres, one of two vice chairman of the agency. Torres' state-required economic disclosure statements show that he received at least $31,000 from firms controlled by Klein during 2012 and 2011. Torres works four days a week for the agency, earning an annual salary of $225,000. Torres told the California Stem Cell Report that his vote had no connection to the consulting work he did for Klein's real estate firms.

Klein has denied any impropriety in connection with his donation. He has not responded to questions involving Torres.

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