Monday, November 29, 2010

Torres and Bernstein Mentioned as Potential Candidates for CIRM Chair

The mystery of who will be nominated to chair the $3 billion California stem cell agency for the next six years could be answered this week if four of the state's top elected officials respond in a timely fashion.

It is up to those officials to make the nominations, but already at least two names are floating about – Art Torres, co-vice chair of the agency, and, surprisingly, Alan Bernstein, head of the external review panel that just filed its report on CIRM's programs. Duane Roth, the other co-vice chair of CIRM, is possibly in the mix as well. There could be more.

Bernstein's name has been mentioned by several sources and is reportedly being pushed by outgoing Chairman Robert Klein. Bernstein, executive director of the New York-based Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, was not involved with CIRM until he led the external review. He has held his current position since 2007. A Canadian, he also was the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which had a budget of $1 billion.

We queried Bernstein about whether he was seeking the post. He replied,
“As to your second question, under Proposition 71, the constitutional officers are the individuals empowered to nominate candidates. To my knowledge, they have not yet sent their nominations to CIRM. If I were nominated, I would make a comment at that time.”
Some of the CIRM board members were skeptical of Torres when he came aboard as vice chairman in 2009, but he seems to have acquired a following. A former state legislator, he brought much-needed Capitol savy to the agency, which was plagued by serious legislative missteps early on, largely the result of actions by Klein. It is clear that Torres is seriously thinking about the post.

Roth comes out of the San Diego business community and has worked on legislative issues as well, particularly in Washington. He has been a strong advocate of bringing CIRM closer to the biotech industry, a position he shares with others on the board.

Also on the table is the question of a salary for the chairman, which he is entitled to under law. No one is publicly discussing numbers. But in 2008, the latest available figure, Bernstein was paid $593,133, including $60,836 in other compensation, at Global Vaccine. Torres currently receives $225,000 on an 80 percent basis. Roth does not receive a salary.

Klein, a real estate investment banker, initially declined a salary in 2004. But he sought one in 2008. The board decided to pay him $150,000 annually for what it considered a half-time position. The current salary range for chairman tops out at $529,000, which is also the maximum for the president and the yet-to-be-filled position of vice president of research and development. Should the new chairman receive a salary anywhere close to the maximum, it is bound to trigger cries of outrage from certain segments of the public. Such a move also would not help CIRM in its dealings in Sacramento, where lawmakers are mired in a financial swamp.

The four constitutional officers who are required by Prop. 71 to make nominations are the governor, lieutenant governor, the treasurer and the controller. The treasurer is a longtime colleague of Torres and is expected to nominate him. The controller has been critical of the agency in his role as chair of the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, a panel created by Prop. 71 as a watchdog over CIRM's financial affairs. But he has given no sign of his preferences.

CIRM is hoping to see nominations this week. However, nothing compels the four officeholders to make them. No penalty exists for failure to do so. In cases of other state agencies, top spots are sometimes left open for months, if not longer. Nonetheless, the governor and lieutenant governor may want to make nominations before they leave office. CIRM directors also do not have to actually elect a chairman. If they fail to do so, Klein could continue as chair. Or he could leave the position, and the board could choose another person as acting chair. The board could then ask the politicians for different nominations. If the governor and lieutenant governor do not make nominations by early January, the task would fall to Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, who will assume office then as governor and lieutenant governor respectively.

The process for nominating persons for chair, essentially freezing the board out of an important role, was written into Prop. 71 by Klein and his co-authors of the measure. It is another case of inartful language that has made it difficult for the board to do its work.

The state's Little Hoover Commission, California's good government agency, last year recommended changes in the procedure to give directors more authority but those proposals have gone nowhere.

The board is not expected to take up the chairmanship at its Dec. 8 meeting, much of which will be devoted to a discussion and perhaps decisions on recommendations of the external review panel. The board's actions on the proposals could influence a later decision on chairmanship, which could come at a meeting in mid-December.

Bernstein, although chairman of the external panel, told the California Stem Cell Report that he will not be making the group's presentation to the board on Dec. 8. He said that task will be carried out by another member of the panel, Richard Klausner, managing director of The Column Group, venture capital fund.

Bernstein said,
“As you may know, the External Advisory Panel (EAP) has not yet presented its report to CIRM's governing board. EAP's Reporting Chair, Dr. Rick Klausner, will present the report and lead the discussion at the Board's December 8 meeting. In light of this, it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment about the report at this time, let alone respond to an anonymous blogger before CIRM's board has had an opportunity to review and discuss the report.”
In a follow-up email, Bernstein said he was not referring to the California Stem Report in his reference to an anonymous blogger.

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