Saturday, June 10, 2006

Klein to Ortiz: You Are an "Ongoing Threat"

In a harshly worded letter, California stem cell Chairman Robert Klein says state Sen. Deborah Ortiz is "an ongoing threat" to his agency. Klein's excoriation of Ortiz has publicly irritated at least one member of CIRM's Oversight Committee and is certain to irritate others. The letter also raises anew long dormant questions about Klein's activities outside of CIRM.

Klein's letter lambasted Ortiz, who is the most influential legislative voice on stem cell issues, because she is the author of SB401, which would tighten oversight of CIRM -- but only if the measure is approved at a statewide election, as was Prop. 71, the measure that created CIRM.

Klein's letter, which he prepared in his position as president of an advocacy group called Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, goes beyond – both in tone and language -- the official CIRM position on the bill, which is that the measure is premature and unnecessary.

CIRM declined to comment on the letter, which it says Klein prepared on his own time. Nonetheless, the 4-page missive is certain to disturb the Oversight Committee members who advocated less aggressive tactics with the legislature in connection with SB401.

Claire Pomeroy, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine, was one. Earlier this spring at a meeting of the Oversight Committee, she said, "I personally support continuing to talk rather than being inflammatory and confrontational."

Oversight Committee member Jeff Sheehy was quoted in a June 8 piece by Terri Somers in the San Diego Union-Tribune as objecting to the timing of the letter, which was sent on Monday before Tuesday's election involving Ortiz, a Sacramento Democrat who was seeking statewide office.

Sheehy said,
“The larger question here is the appropriateness of the chair of a state agency, especially a man who has been very insistent on having operational responsibilities of the institute, having his own political action committee. It just doesn't seem appropriate to me."
Sheehy also said he "feels like he has been lied to" concerning Klein's involvement in the group, which grew out of the old Prop. 71 campaign committee.

Somers' article quoted John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Santa Monica, Ca., as saying:
"'This is certainly not something that is appropriate for the chairman of the (institute's board) to be cranking out."
The article continued,
"Although Klein legally has a right to campaign for causes he supports, Simpson said, most state residents forever will associate his name and actions with the stem cell institute."
The first sentence of Klein's letter states:
"As a State Senator, Deborah Ortiz has been an ongoing threat to Proposition 71, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), and stem cell research in its entirety."
"Crippling" is another word the letter uses to describe SB401, which Klein say is merely an attempt by Ortiz "to impose her own legislative controls" on CIRM. It goes on to accuse her of "grandstanding" defying the will of the electorate, requiring "expensive" audits of the agency, consorting with the far right and being praised by "enemies of stem cell research." The letter also compares her invidiously to other legislators who instead exercised "highly constructive and responsible" leadership.

Ortiz' office had no comment on the letter.

Responding to an inquiry by the California Stem Cell Report, the Americans group released a background statement that said Klein's letter was "stimulated" by a June 2 article by reporter Somers which, among other things, repeated a statement in a much earlier story by Somers that Prop. 71 was Ortiz' brainchild.

The June 2 article, according to Klein's group,

"...clearly indicated that Sen. Ortiz's press operation had succeeded in misleading a highly responsible and thoughtful journalist as to the senator's importance in the 'creation' of Prop. 71 and the allegedly positive effect of her legislative attacks on Prop. 71. Sen. Ortiz did not see drafts of Prop. 71 until after it was finished and submitted to the attorney general for certification for the petition process. She did not participate in the drafting."
Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society was quoted by Somers in her June 8 article. He said,

“When you look at Sen. Ortiz's history of involvement with Prop. 71, (Klein's statement is) not accurate. She was the first to propose a bond initiative. Klein wouldn't be where he is today without Ortiz.”
Klein clearly believes that he can wear two stem cell hats. In some ways, his position reflects his statement during the February stem cell trial in Hayward, Ca., that he does not regard himself as a state employee since he does not accept a salary. But there is no doubt that he is working fulltime, if not more, as chair of the stem cell agency. He is a formidable fundraiser ($50 million or more for CIRM to date), aggressive, intelligent, knowledgeable. "Super salesman" is how Fortune magazine described him.

But would it be appropriate for the state director of highways to also be head of an advocacy group promoting state highway construction? State employees have a right to a private life, but not when it conflicts with their public responsibilities. Private persons likewise can pursue their own agendas, but they do not necessarily have a right to chair a public agency that enhances that agenda.

Another way to look at the linkage in Klein's case is to consider the public impact of his letter concerning Ortiz. Imagine this possible beginning to a news story: "A little known group called Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures says an influential Democratic state legislator is a threat to all stem cell research." Ho-hum. The reason that this letter is significant is because it is signed by the chair of an agency that is going to give away $3 billion for embryonic stem cell research. Without the ties between Klein and CIRM, his letter has little impact.

One of Klein's responsibilities as chair of CIRM is to be an advocate for stem cell research. But should he go beyond the agency's debated and approved position? At the very least, the differing messages create confusion. They can also foster suspicion, mistrust and concern that secret agendas are at work.

The background statement from the Americans group said CIRM was not consulted during preparation of the letter. The group said the letter represents only the view of the Prop. 71 campaign committee, formerly known as Californians for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures. The statement said the name was changed to reflect national educational and political plans.

The group, which shares space in Klein's personal offices in Palo Alto, pointed to a comment at a CIRM meeting in February 2005 during which Klein told reporters that he would continue as chairman of the campaign committee with the goal of raising $1 million for federal advocacy work as well as retiring the campaign's then $1.4 million debt.

The full text of the letter follows the item below on some of its allegations. For technical reasons, we cannot post the background document, which is as interesting, if not more so than the letter. If you would like a copy of the background document, please send an email to We will send it to you as a PDF attachment, probably on Wednesday.

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