December 18, 2004

California Stem Cell Board Draws Fire

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The committee tasked with doling out California's $3 billion in stem cell research grants has selected two of its leaders, despite conflict of interest complaints and accusations that its inaugural gathering violated the state's open meeting laws.

Housing developer Robert Klein II was unanimously chosen chairman Friday while biotechnology company Chiron Corp. (CHIR) co-founder Edward Penhoet received 21 of a possible 25 votes for vice chairman. Each will serve six- year terms.

The two appointments to lead the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine were the only formal actions the committee took Friday.

Bowing to complaints that the meeting's original agenda violated the state's open meeting laws because it didn't give the public enough time or information for review, Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly rescheduled all items except for the two votes until an unspecified date.

Westly, who was required with Angelides to convene the first meeting of the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee, said the items were removed to avoid unnecessary distractions.

"It's important that everything be done openly and transparently," Westly said before the meeting.

Still, one of the committee's loudest critics said even the stripped-down meeting violated open meeting laws because it didn't give the public enough information in enough time about the three vice chairman candidates.

One-paragraph biographies of each candidate were provided at the meeting. Several of the 26 committee members said they knew little about the candidates.

Charles Halpern, who was once a public interest lawyer and is now a writer and consultant, said Friday that he is contemplating a lawsuit to overturn the committee's action.

"We got no information about any of the candidates until (Friday) morning," said Halpern, who had applied to become vice chair.

He and others complained that the head of the new institute should also be a scientist.

Several newly sworn in committee members praised Klein as the perfect candidate for chairman because of his patient advocacy work and detailed knowledge of state government and bond markets gleaned from his years as an affordable housing developer.

Another group complained that several committee members have biotechnology and pharmaceutical connections, which could lead to conflicts of interest when it comes to doling out research grants.

"The public health value of stem cell research could be significantly compromised by the web of conflicts between committee members and the companies that stand to profit from research grants," said Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.