Thursday, May 08, 2008

Consumer Watchdog Rethinks Stand on Klein's Private Contact with Grant Applicants

The man who probably has spent more time than any other independent observer physically watching the affairs of the California stem cell agency now believes that CIRM Chairman Robert Klein did not violate the agency's no-contact rule with grant applicants. We disagree.

It is a change of position for John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog. Earlier he responded to questions from the California Stem Cell Report about Klein's actions, which you can read all about here, by saying there could have been a technical violation.

Simpson now says,
"Upon further reflection, I don't believe Bob Klein violated the Facilities Working Group bylaws when he played a role in negotiating discounts if applicants take all the CIRM money upfront.

"First, the applications were no longer before the Facilities Working Group. The group's work was done.

"Second, the discussions weren't focused on specific applications but on a discount rate that would apply to all equally if accepted.

"Not that it's relevant to whether there was a technical violation, it's also the case that everyone at the meeting -- including me - understood from the discussions that Klein would be involved in the negotiations."
However, the ban in the bylaws does not permit conditions. Drafted by CIRM's outside counsel, James Harrison, the single sentence states flatly:
"Members of the Facilities Working Group shall not communicate with an applicant about an application to CIRM."
The facilities group work is not really done until the CIRM board of directors act. The board has absolute authority over grant approval, as CIRM likes to point out. Directors could well send a recommendation back to a review group for reconsideration.

Another possibility: Sometimes, reviewers make a recommendation that basically says a grant should be funded if there is enough cash. Let's say a reviewer, following the review group action, decides that the applicant needs a little guidance to help bring about directors' approval. He or she could contact the applicant and give them suggestions on how to successfully approach the directors. Under Simpson's construct, that certainly would be permissible.

In this particular case, Klein's proposal to stretch CIRM funds was inventive and successful. But, in our view, he violated the bylaws to do it, although it seems at this point to have created no harm. Nobody is arguing he performed a dastardly deed.

However, bylaws are in place for a reason. If they are violated on relatively minor matters, what does that mean ultimately for CIRM's credibility and integrity.

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