Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Race for the Chair: Blowback, Politics and CIRM Financing

A strongly worded letter from California state treasurer Bill Lockyer concerning this week's election of a new chairman of the state's $3 billion stem cell agency could be triggering a bit of blowback for the candidate backed by Lockyer.

The letter advised all five of Lockyer's appointees that he is a vigorous supporter of Jonathan Thomas, a Los Angeles bond financier who was nominated for the chairmanship by Lockyer, the governor and lieutenant governor, all Democrats. The only other candidate is Frank Litvack, a Los Angeles cardiologist and businessman, who was nominated by the state controller, also a Democrat. The 29-member CIRM board meets late this afternoon in San Diego to choose between Litvack and Thomas.

Lockyer's preferences carry more than normal weight for the entire CIRM board because he is the gatekeeper on the sale of state bonds, the only real source of cash for CIRM. Lockyer becomes even more important since the agency will need a fresh dose of funding by next spring. The state plans to limit its bond sales during the next 12 months because of its ongoing financial crisis. CIRM is likely to face stiff competition for being placed in the bond rounds when they do occur.

Lockyer's letter disturbed or angered some CIRM board members, based on what the California Stem Cell Report has learned from a variety of sources. But none of the five Lockyer appointees responded to queries.

Political inteference – and nasty at that – was one reaction. Is Lockyer trying to tell the board that CIRM financing would be endangered if his candidate is not approved, wondered another board member.

One thought Klein engineered the letter. However, Klein and Lockyer are not on the best of terms, we understand. Another thought CIRM co-vice chair Art Torres, who is close to Lockyer, could have had a hand in it. Our own speculation is that Lockyer, like any successful politician, wants to see his candidate win and is willing to do what he thinks it takes to produce a victory. Other factors as well could have entered into it.

While the letter has triggered strong negative reaction, it is not clear whether it has changed the positions of fence-sitters. It could have a reverse effect for Lockyer, given the reaction of some board members in the past to other efforts at what they regard as outside intrusions into CIRM affairs.

Rumblings persist that CIRM Chairman Robert Klein, a real estate investment banker, continues to work on behalf of Thomas. However, CIRM's outside counsel, James Harrison, has strongly denied that on behalf of the outgoing chairman. Klein, however, is reportedly once again talking about the private placement of CIRM bonds and the need to have a chairman who could do that.

One board member reflected on Klein's unsuccessful attempt last fall to engineer the selection of his own successor. The pitch then was "science science science." The CIRM director said,
"Now it is bonds bonds bonds, legal legal legal. Full time is the only way possible and paid paid paid, and the only way CIRM can be governed is as it was written in the gospel of Prop. 71."
The reference to fulltime and paid is to Thomas' reported desire for a salary in the range of $400,000-plus, working at 80 percent or more time. Litvack says he would work parttime for a salary around $137,000. Another separation point on the men is Thomas' apparent support for continuing the much-criticized dual executive arrangement at CIRM while Litvack has indicated he sees the chairmanship as much more of an oversight function. Of the two, Litvack has a stronger scientific background while Thomas has more experience in bond financing.

One question arose about the public nature of Lockyer's letter with more than one board member saying the treasurer could have delivered the same message to his appointees privately with a phone call, letter or email. Copies of the letters were emailed Monday to the California Stem Cell Report by the treasurer's office. We have a standing request into the treasurer's office and others for any information regarding the chair election.

As for the politics in the matter, Thomas is reportedly being backed by by former California state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, who is now chair of investment banking for the Midwest for Goldman Sachs. She is also sister of California Gov. Jerry Brown and a personal friend of the candidate. The governor nominated Thomas for the post in a terse, 56-word letter. Thomas also reportedly has the support of Congressman Howard Berman, a longtime West Los Angeles Democratic politician.

Klein, who controls the CIRM board agenda, has allotted only 30 minutes for public presentations and public comments by the candidates beginning about 5 p.m. tomorrow. Then comes an executive session, allotted about 60 minutes, after which the formal public vote would be swiftly taken. The CIRM board agendas are always full, but the one for the meeting this week is especially jammed with major items. Several board members are not pleased with the tight schedule and wonder whether it is part of an effort by Klein to limit discussion and ensure favorable action on Thomas.

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