CIRM's Politics of Personal Enrichment

NOV. 28, 2010

Newspaper report exposes exorbitant salaries at state stem cell agency but understates waste and scientific failure


The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the $3 billion state stem cell agency created by Proposition 71 in 2004, has made front-page news. The attention comes not from announcement of a miraculous cure or therapy, which CIRM promised but has yet to produce.

The news is that CIRM boss Robert Klein II, a multimillionaire real estate developer, wants another $3 billion in public funds. The Los Angeles Times broke the story and exposed conflict-of-interest and oversight issues with CIRM, but did not capture the full extent of waste at the agency.

In his Nov. 22, front-page piece, the Times’ Jack Dolan noted that in 2009 the CIRM paid president Alan Trounson $490,000, far beyond the $173,987 salary of California’s governor, and much more than the $199,700 Francis S. Collins earns as director of the federal National Institutes of Health. The article also noted that CIRM employs former state Sen. Art Torres, who once headed the state Democratic Party, at a salary of $225,000. The Times does not observe that this was money that CIRM did not have to pay.

Duane Roth, a man with biotech experience, and who was already a member of the CIRM oversight committee, wanted to serve as vice-chairman for no salary. CIRM rejected that path and made Roth and Torres co-vice chairmen. They initially opted to pay Torres, a non-scientist, $75,000, then during a time of recession duly tripled Torres’ salary to $225,000, more than the governor of California and more than Francis Collins earns as head of the NIH. Mr. Dolan noted that CIRM pays communications boss Don Gibbons $190,000 a year, also more than the governor of California, and nearly as much as the head of NIH.

CIRM pegged the salary of its board chairman, Robert Klein, as $529,000. Klein declined to take any salary until 2008 but the multimillionaire now draws $150,000 from CIRM. “In the midst of a major recession that has not been kind to real estate, it became necessary to at least take some salary,” he told the Los Angeles Times in an interview at a Stanford University research facility partially funded with a grant of $43 million from CIRM. In that interview he said that in four years on the 2014 ballot he will ask Californians for another $3 billion.

“I passionately believe there will be some remarkable new therapies that will save lives and mitigate suffering substantially,” Klein told the Times. Such therapies already exist, but the Times report does not observe that CIRM played no role in recent medical-scientific breakthroughs such as the construction of a new windpipe for a Colombian woman, a triumph of adult stem cell research.

A man whose eyes sustained chemical damage in 1948 now enjoys near-normal vision as a result of stem-cell transplants conducted by Italian researchers, part of a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. CIRM played no role in this restoration of sight.

Proposition 71 also tendered the possibility of royalties, patents and licenses from research conducted by CIRM. An analysis by the League of Women Voters says that “the amount of revenues the state would receive from those types of arrangements is unknown but could be significant.” In the six years since 2004 a ballpark figure for the amount of revenue received is zero.

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