Monday, May 26, 2008

The Murky World of $2 Million in CIRM Spending

A key committee of directors of the California stem cell agency on Wednesday will examine one of the most important aspects of the $3 billion institute's operating budget, but one that remains hidden from the public with only one day left before the matter is to be aired.

One can only speculate about the reasons for the secrecy. Perhaps it is a deliberate and quite possibly illegal attempt to avoid public scrutiny of CIRM's outside contracts, which are the second largest element in its budget. Or perhaps the secrecy is related to CIRM's inability to produce budget documents in a timely fashion.

Whatever the reason, both are causes for concern. After nearly four years, CIRM should be able to produce routine budget documents quickly. Trying to avoid public scrutiny is hardly fitting for an enterprise that styles itself as an exemplar of bioethics and openness. Withholding the information also makes it virtually impossible for the public or other interested parties to comment intelligently before the CIRM Governance Subcommittee, which convenes on Wednesday to examine the agency's $2 million or so in outside contracts.

CIRM has an operating budget of about $8 million. The largest item in the budget – something like $5 million -- goes for benefits and salaries, including two salaries that rank among the top 10 highest for California state employees, according to a San Francisco Chronicle story this past weekend.

When we cite the budget figures, we must qualify them with terms such as "or so" and "roughly" because CIRM's latest effort at a budget is something of a hodge-podge, missing such things as updated totals with year-to-year comparisons. The most recent available document came up last December. It appears to show something like a $200,000 to $600,000-plus increase in outside contracts since last June, although some of that will be for the 2008-09 budget year.

Up for consideration at Wednesday's Governance meeting is a modification in the roughly $500,000-a-year contract for legal services with the law firm of Remcho, Johhansen & Purcell of the San Leandro, Ca. The Remcho contract is on top of the salaries of four other attorneys working for CIRM including a general counsel but not attorney/Chairman Robert Klein.

James Harrison is the lawyer with Remcho who appears to do most of his firm's work for CIRM. He has been working with Klein since at least the 2004 campaign for Prop. 71, which created CIRM. Harrison wrote portions of the initiative as did Klein. Harrison appears to be a skilled and competent attorney. The agenda item on his contract suggests that it will be extended or perhaps payments will be increased or both. It is not likely that Klein is bringing the contract before the directors in order to cut it.

How much is the proposed increase? We can't tell you. CIRM will not disclose details of the budget item. We began asking for some indication of the details on May 22. At first we were told that the information would not be made public until tomorrow morning, one day before the meeting. That raised a question of whether a document on the matter existed at CIRM. In that case, it would be a public record that would have to be disclosed under state law. We were then told that all of the information about the matter was "verbal," as of last Friday. We were told at another point that a one-page, proposed unsigned contract extension existed for Remcho but that it was deemed not to be a public record.

Whatever the actual facts are, it would not be the first time that public information has been withheld by CIRM for reasons that are difficult to understand. One memorable case last year involved a $31 million proposal by the California State University and College system. Klein's office refused to release the document, but the California Stem Cell Report linked to it after finding it on a non-CIRM Internet site.

Also on the agenda of the Governance Subcommittee, which is chaired by former Hollywood studio executive Sherry Lansing, is more information that is not available to the public. It deals with a look at all the outside contracting, but again we can tell you nothing further about its specifics because CIRM has chosen to withhold the report.

CIRM's staff is capped by law at 50(currently it has only about 26 employees). And "privatizing" some of its work work is necessary and makes good sense. But the use of outside contractors by government agencies requires careful selection and keen oversight.

The California legislative analyst said in a lengthy report in 1996 that outside contracting problems for state government include accountability, accurate cost comparisons and quality control. We also wonder whether it is possible for CIRM's tiny staff to properly monitor a host of contractors, particularly in the case of the proposed $500 million biotech lending program.

We asked John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog for his thoughts on outside contracting by CIRM. Simpson, who has watched CIRM closely for about three years, said,
"While there are some services that are best performed by outside contractors, there is a real danger of going outside when it's unnecessary and the work should be performed by staff.

"For instance, while I greatly respect James Harrison's abilities as a lawyer, I am hard pressed to understand why the stem cell agency spends so much on an outside legal counsel when it has a staff counsel.

"The point is that contracts with outside vendors offer a multitude of opportunities for waste and abuse. All of them must be closely evaluated by the oversight board. Moreover, circumstances change. Some of what made sense to be contracted out as the institute was in start-up mode, might now be more appropriately handled by staff."

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