In unusual move, Gov. Newsom smacks stem cell agency

Gov. Gavin Newsom at the State of the State Address in January. (Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has rebuked California’s stem cell agency about its conduct of the election of a new chairperson for the $12 billion enterprise, a process that has been disrupted with the withdrawal of one candidate and the addition of a new one.

Newsom’s comments came virtually on the eve of the election, a process that began last spring and was scheduled to end next week. The job is a key to the success of the agency’s efforts to produce revolutionary therapies that would cure afflictions ranging from cancer and heart disease to diabetes and immune deficiencies such as the “bubble baby” disease.

In an unusual letter six days ago to the outgoing chair, Newsom said he was nominating a new candidate for the $569,000-a-year job after his earlier nominee, John A. Pérez, dropped out.  Pérez is a former speaker of the state Assembly.

The governor’s rebuke was an unusual intervention involving CIRM’s internal processes.

Pérez withdrew “due to the actions taken by the board after his nomination to significantly modify the responsibilities of the position to which he was nominated,” Newsom told Jonathan Thomas, the current chair of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Thomas is being termed out.

“I am concerned,” Newsom continued, “that this action (the change in responsibilities) was taken not only without notice to the nominees but also without notice to the offices of any of the four constitutional officers who submitted nominees.”

Newsom did not specify in his Dec. 2 letter which responsibilities of the chair were modified. State law details the duties of the chair, and they cannot be altered by the agency or the governor. It appears that the governor was mainly concerned about actions that changed the job from an 80 percent, part-time position to a full-time position. The agency also increased the job’s annual salary from Thomas’ $419,234 pay in 2021 to $569,000. Thomas is on an 80-percent earlier pay scale.

The changes occurred during public meetings of the directors’ Governance Subcommittee.

(Here is the letter that CIRM submitted to Newsom in July concerning the position and desired “key attributes” along with the legal duties. )

Asked by Capitol Weekly about the governor’s concerns, Thomas released a one-sentence response: “The board is committed to an open and fair process with equal consideration of both nominees.”

His letter last week was the first public chiding of CIRM by a governor in the 18-year history of the stem cell program.

The governor’s rebuke was an unusual intervention involving CIRM’s internal processes and could be construed as a reminder that Newsom expects to see his nominee elected.

The ballot initiative that created CIRM was written specifically, however, to prevent elected politicians from tinkering with the research program. Funds flow directly to the agency without review by the governor or the Legislature. The law that created CIRM can only be changed by another ballot initiative or a super, super-majority vote of the legislature (70 percent) and the signature of the governor.

Newsom has been a strong backer of the agency since its inception in 2004  when he was mayor of San Francisco. But his letter last week was the first public chiding of CIRM by a governor in the 18-year history of the stem cell program.

Actions by elected officials involving CIRM are largely limited to appointing some members of the 35-member governing board, officially called the Citizens Independent Oversight Committee (ICOC). The wording reflects a desire by the ballot initiative authors to assure voters in 2004 that CIRM would not be diverted from its course by changes in political winds and opposition to stem cell research, which can be fierce.

Pérez’s withdrawal last week surprised the agency. The two original candidates were scheduled to appear before the board’s Governance Subcommittee next Monday in a closed-door session. Then, the ICOC had planned to elect the new chair at its board meeting next Thursday. Both of those plans have been scrubbed. The agency now plans to elect and install a new chair at a Jan. 26 meeting.

In addition to Pérez, nominated last September was Emilie Marcus, a scientist and senior associate dean of strategy at the UCLA School of Medicine whose salary was $382,499 in 2021. Prior to joining UCLA in 2015, she was CEO of Cell Press and editor-in-chief of Cell, widely regarded as one of the leading cellular research journals in the world. The field is at the heart of the research that CIRM has backed since 2004 to fulfill voters’ expectations for “miraculous” therapies that would be available to the general public.

 (See here for a discussion of both Perez and Marcus and their backgrounds.)

To replace Pérez, Newsom nominated Vito Imbasciani, who is head of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. He was appointed in 2015 by then Gov. Jerry Brown.

Imbasciani’s resume shows a deep medical background that included a career in the U.S. Army and then with Kaiser Permanente in Southern California.  He also ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate in 2014 from a Los Angeles beach area district.

Imbasciani served from 1986 to 2014 with the Army, retiring as a colonel. He was a battle surgeon in Iraq and a field surgeon in Desert Storm. A urologic surgeon,  he joined Kaiser in 1997 and continues to be affiliated with the organization. From 2004 to 2015, he was director of government relations for Southern California Kaiser.

In 2012, he was selected by former President Obama to introduce him at what one news report called a “star-studded” fundraiser in Los Angeles. “Until last year, the price of my service was to live a lie,” Imbasciani said. “But not anymore.”

“Thanks to the unyielding efforts of President Obama I can serve my country openly with my family by my side.”

Last July, he told the governor’s office that he was interested in the position at CIRM. He filed a statement that detailed how he met all the legal qualifications and more for the position.

Imbasciani has a Ph.D. from Cornell University in musicology, an M.D. from the University of Vermont and a B.A. from New York State University.

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has been writing about the California stem cell agency since 2005 on his newsletter, The California Stem Cell Report. More articles concerning the issues involved in the election of a new chair can be found here on Capitol Weekly and on the newsletter’s website.


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