Saturday, June 10, 2006

New controversy in stem cell area: Klein's letter about Ortiz

Terri Somers reported on June 8 that Robert Klein, the chairman of the state stem cell institute [CIRM], sent a scathing letter, one day before California's primary election, to patient advocates around California alleging that secretary of state candidate Sen. Deborah Ortiz was on an “anti-research crusade” concerning stem cells. Ortiz did lose the primary vote to Sen. Debra Bowen.

Klein said he sent the letter not to campaign against Ortiz for secretary of state, but to clarify his opposition to Senate Bill 401, legislation Ortiz has sponsored. SB 401 was directed to tightening certain accountability and conflict-of-interest matters in the administration of CIRM, and would have impacted the implementation of intellectual property policy. The Los Angeles Times opposed SB 401 in an editorial on April 27 but the Sacramento Bee acknowledged the underlying issues addressed in SB 401 on June 2.

The group under which Klein sent out the letter originally was called Californians for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures and was the fundraising machine for Proposition 71, which was approved by voters in November 2004. The name was changed in 2005 to reflect its new focus on supporting stem cell research initiatives in other states and federally. It is now called Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures. On becoming chairman of CIRM, Klein said Klein said he agreed only to relinquish his position in the nonprofit educational organization now known at the Alliance for Stem Cell Research, not his relationship with Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures.
Board and staff members of Americans for Stem Cell Therapies and Cures, which operates out of the office of Klein's financial firm, followed up the letter with election day telephone calls to some of the letter's recipients. Thus, the chairman of CIRM, a state agency, is engaged in lobbying political candidates within California and in lobbying stem cell research efforts in other states and before the federal government.

In addition to the disagreement over Senate Bill 401, part of the fight between Klein and Ortiz concerns Ortiz's role in the creation of Proposition 71. Klein asserts that Ortiz had nothing to do with writing the Proposition 71 initiative, which he wrote with other patient advocates. In his letter, Klein said the real credit for changes to toughen policies and standards of the institute were worked out with Bowen (Ortiz' opponent in the primary election), and Sens. Don Perata, D-East Bay; Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove; and Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco.

Public advocates and at least one member of the stem cell institute's board said the issue was not so much the content of the letter as whether Klein should be involved at all in campaigning. CIRM board member Jeff Sheehy said Klein's letter “doesn't pass the smell test. I never understood what the conflict was between Bob and Deborah,” Sheehy said. “Frankly, they've hurt themselves, they hurt the agency and they've hurt the issue.”


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