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Groups Sue to Stop Calif. Stem Cell Funding

Politically conservative public interest groups filed lawsuits Tuesday seeking to invalidate the $3 billion stem cell research (search) funding institution California voters approved in November.

One lawsuit filed by the People's Advocate and the National Tax Limitation Foundation alleges that the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (search) violates California law because it's not governed exclusively by the state government and the committee that controls the money isn't publicly elected.

The second lawsuit was filed by a newly created nonprofit called Californians for Public Accountability and Ethical Science (search), which is supported by at least one person who originally opposed Proposition 71.

The lawsuit alleges that provisions in Proposition 71 (search) exempting members of the institute from some conflict-of-interest laws are illegal. The suit also alleges that the ballot language violated a California election law that requires each proposition to address a single subject.

Proposition 71 was supported by 59 percent of voters.

David Llewellyn, the Sacramento attorney representing the plaintiffs, would identify only two of the people behind Californians for Public Accountability and Ethical Science. They are Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, who was president of the "No on 71" campaign, and Joni Eareckson Tada, a paraplegic who founded Joni and Friends Ministries in Agoura Hills.

"People need to get the message that this proposition is an enormous expenditure of money in a financially strapped state for human embryo research that is increasingly seen as problematic and hypothetical," Tada said in a statement.

Institute spokeswoman Julie Buckner said the proposition's passage demonstrated that a majority of voters "felt comfortable that there was ample oversight and accountability built into the initiative." She declined to discuss specifics of the lawsuit.

Lawyers representing plaintiffs in both cases said they bypassed the lower courts because of the issue's urgency: The institute will soon begin to dole out the $3 billion in borrowed funds over the next 10 years. Institute officials said they hope to award the first grants by May.

"They are getting ready soon to start distributing grant money," said Dana Cody, a lawyer with the Life Legal Defense Foundation, which opposes abortion and has fought in court to keep a brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo (search), alive in a high-profile right-to-die case.

Human embryonic stem cells are created in the first days after conception and scientists believe they can someday be used to replace diseased tissue and organs. But many abortion foes oppose the research because human embryos are destroyed during research.

The institute is governed by the Independent Citizen's Oversight Committee, which has 29 members who were appointed by various elected officials, including five by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The 29 members are in charge of awarding the institute's research grants, loans and contracts.

The proposition's language exempts the members from some of California's conflict laws.

It allows members to vote on awarding research grants that directly address diseases they or their family members may have. At least three members have debilitating illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Institute interim president and chairman Robert Klein's son suffers from diabetes and Klein's mother has Alzheimer's disease.

Ten of the committee's members represent specific disease advocacy groups, and the lawsuit alleges these appointments will improperly lead to an inordinate amount of research funding addressing those ailments to the detriment of other diseases not represented on the board.

The plaintiffs also contend the conflict exemptions will allow committee scientists to receive institute grants.

That issue will be addressed directly at the institute's committee meeting March 1 at Stanford University. At the last committee meeting in San Diego there appeared to be a consensus building to ban members from applying for institute research grants.