Sunday, April 25, 2010

Remcho Up for 30 Percent Hike at CIRM; Contracting Changes Also on Table

Directors of the California stem cell agency are being asked this week to approve a 30 percent, $150,000 annual increase in payments to its longtime outside legal counsel, who gives advice on everything from the performance evaluation of the CIRM chairman to pregnancy leave.

The contract with Remcho, Johansen & Purcell of San Leandro, Ca., comes before CIRM directors Wednesday and Thursday at their meeting in the Los Angeles area.

Also on the agenda are revisions in the agency's policies for the outside contractors that are absolutely essential to CIRM's operation. Contracts with outside enterprises total roughly $3 million. Their expenses are the second largest item in CIRM's operational budget.

Documents detailing the Remcho and contract policy moves were posted on the CIRM Web site on Friday, only two business days before the CIRM board meeting.

In the case of Remcho, its man at CIRM is James Harrison, who worked with CIRM Chairman Robert Klein during the Prop. 71 campaign that created CIRM in 2004. Klein, Harrison and a few others wrote the ballot initiative.

Remcho was hired in a no-bid contract after the election. Klein has said that arrangement was approved by the state attorney general because of the specialized nature of Prop. 71.

Remcho currently has a two-year, $1 million contract with CIRM that ends this June. Directors are being asked to add $150,000 this year to the contract and approve a new one for 2010-2011 for $475,000.

CIRM staff prepared a three-page memo detailing the scope of Remcho's work, which includes virtually every piece of the CIRM pie: its finances, $500 million loan biotech industry loan program, contract negotiations, performance evaluation of the chairman and president, preparation of RFAs, contracting policies, legislation and even creation of a pregnancy leave policy.

The memo, however, did not state a reason for the $150,000 increase this year for Remcho nor did it say whether the hike was for work already performed.

Remcho bills CIRM at a rate of $350 an hour for work by its partners and $265 for associates, which CIRM says is significantly discounted. The contract would amount to about 3,100 hours for one partner, roughly a year-and-a-half of fulltime work, assuming a 40-hour week and two weeks vacation.

Directors are additionally being asked to alter their existing contracting policies in a manner that would remove some contracts from their normal oversight. Under the proposed changes, Remcho's contract and others below $600,000 for any single year would not have to be approved by the CIRM board.

New policy language would state:

“When a contract has a duration greater than 12 months, the approval threshold shall be based on the contract amount authorized for the initial year and separately for each subsequent year.”

No justification for the addition of the language was presented by CIRM staff, but it would clarify some ambiguities. It would also give the staff far greater leeway in executing contracts and avoid coming to the board with matters that could be controversial.

Board approval would be required only when the amount of the contract “is expected” to be more than $600,000, instead of the current $500,000. Approval of the directors' Governance Subcommittee would be required when the contract is likely to be more than $300,000 instead of $250,000.

Our take? Harrison performs admirably for CIRM. He is more than competent and nearly unflappable. But the arrangements that led to Remcho's close ties to CIRM, totally acceptable in the world of business, raise persistent concerns involving fairness to other law firms that might bridle at suggestions that they could not perform the lucrative work as well as Remcho. It may be impossible, for all practical purposes, to open the work to others, but directors should recognize the perception problems the contract presents.

As for the changes that would remove some contracts from the directors' approval, they should be rejected. CIRM's unusual dependency on outside help in a business and academic world of competitive secrets plus its need to monitor more than $1 billion in research requires careful and regular oversight by directors.

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