Less than a month after receiving $262,000 in funding, Norris Tolson, president and CEO of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, has announced the Center is rejecting the free money from the Golden LEAF Foundation that would have been used to “educate the public” about the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

The federal disease research lab could be sited in Butner, about 25 miles north of Raleigh. The Center is an outspoken proponent of the NBAF, and a member of a consortium lobbying the Department of Homeland Security to locate it here.

In his letter to foundation president Valeria Lee, Tolson objected to the requirement that any information materials to be distributed to the public be vetted by the Foundation. “The prior submission procedure raises constitutional issues concerning impermissible prior restraints on speech protected by the First Amendment,” Tolson wrote. (Download the letter: PDF, 564 KB.)

However, the First Amendment protects only abridgment of speech by governments, not private entities or nonprofit corporations.

In a previous interview with the Indy, Ken Tindall, senior vice president of science and business development at the Center, emphasized the information would be impartial and factual. However, at the time, it was uncertain who would determine the veracity and neutrality of the materials. (See “Big dough goes to NBAF PR.”)

Tindall denied that the Granville County NBAF Community Education Program, as it was known, was tantamount to a public relations campaign. The Center had retained the services of French West Vaughan, a powerful public relations firm with clients including Pfizer, to head the effort.

Lee said Tuesday it would be incumbent upon the Foundation to ensure the materials met the board’s stipulation that the materials be impartial and accurate. In order to retain its nonprofit status, federal tax laws require that the Foundation must ensure “independent and objective exposition of a particular subject matter,” and “a sufficiently full and fair exposition of pertinent facts to enable the public or an individual to form an independent opinion or conclusion.”

In the July 29 letter, Tolson wrote further that after the Center and its lawyers reviewed the terms of the grant agreement, they found it “virtually unworkable from an administrative perspective.” (Download the grant agreement: Word, 62 KB.) He also took issue with the requirement that the Center present a revised work plan, budget and interim report to the Foundation by Sept. 15.

The Foundation could also withhold the final 10 percent of the funding until the grant period ended and all the reports had been finalized and filed. Lee said that requirement is common for all grantees receiving money from Golden LEAF.

After voting to approve the funding last month, the Foundation board was widely criticized by NBAF opponents and other policy watchdogs for setting a precedent for other groups to use public money for private interests.

Golden LEAF was created in 1999 to collect money from the state’s tobacco settlement and distribute it through grants and investments that boost North Carolina’s long-term economic health, particularly in rural communities hurt by the downturn in tobacco farming.

Lee said the grant was warranted because Golden LEAF is interested in building the biotech sector in North Carolina.

It is not the first time Center officials have asked for money for the NBAF. Earlier this year, Center officials approached legislators for $25 million in funding for “infrastructure” related to the lab. State Rep. Winkie Wilkins, a Democrat representing Durham and Person counties, sponsored legislation to appropriate the money, but it was not included in the governor’s budget.

Other major announcements regarding NBAF are due in the next week. Today, Raleigh City Council is planning to oppose the siting of the federal disease research lab in Butner because of concerns over its proximity to Falls Lake, the city’s primary source of drinking water. The Durham Environmental Affairs Board is scheduled to discuss the recent draft environmental impact statement at its Aug. 6 meeting at 7 p.m. And the Durham County Commissioners will consider the NBAF at its Aug. 11 meeting at 7 p.m.

See “Public meeting is the last on disease lab” for more coverage of this issue.