LOS ANGELES — As a California lawmaker called for a statewide task force to crack down on corruption in the legal cannabis market, new details are emerging in a corruption scandal that has ensnared local government officials from the Inland Empire to the San Gabriel Valley and Southeast Los Angeles. Angeles County.
Federal prosecutors have unveiled two plea agreements that detail pay-to-play schemes involving cannabis business licenses and corroborate claims from a Los Angeles Times investigation last month that examined how the legalization of weed triggered a wave of corruption across California.
In one of the deals, former Baldwin Park City Council member Ricardo Pacheco admitted to soliciting bribes from cannabis companies, including $150,000 from a consultant working for a distributor. cannabis shop. The consultant refused, but under the direction of the FBI, he provided the campaign contributions requested by Pacheco, according to the agreement. The agreement does not name the distributor, but its description of the dates when the company obtained the exclusive right to distribute cannabis corresponds to a single company, Rukli Inc.
In the other plea deal, a former San Bernardino County planning commissioner, Gabriel Chavez, admitted to acting as an intermediary to funnel bribes from pot companies to Pacheco under the stratagem.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, on Thursday asked state Attorney General Rob Bonta in writing to create a task force to look into corruption in local cannabis licensing and ensure that cities grant permits without favoritism. She cited the LA Times investigation, as well as the recent corruption lawsuits.
“I hope this task force will investigate and prosecute any illegal activity related to cannabis licensing,” Garcia wrote in her letter to Bonta. “I also hope that your office will be able to create a roadmap for future cities to ensure an end to pay-to-play systems and any illegal activity associated with cannabis licensing.”
Also in response to the LA Times inquiry, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, said he plans to seek a state audit of cannabis licensing.
Other state officials have responded to the LA Times’ recent investigation into legal weed, particularly the paper’s findings that legalization has triggered an increase in illegal cannabis cultivation. The growth engulfed entire communities and led to environmental damage, increased violence and the exploitation of workers, some of whom died of carbon monoxide poisoning from generators as they tried to keep warm.
This summer, Governor Gavin Newsom’s office led its emergency operations, cannabis licensing, water regulatory and environmental protection agencies to form a task force targeting illegal cannabis farms.
The task force also includes the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Plantation, rebranded by Bonta as EPIC, short for the eradication and prevention of illicit cannabis. In the past, CAMP relied heavily on National Guard troops and helicopters each summer to cut down plants grown illegally on public lands. In a webcast press conference this week, Bonta said EPIC would now be open year-round and would also tackle organized crime as well as labor trafficking.
Law enforcement officials within the new state program and in counties struggling with rampant unlicensed cannabis farms have expressed skepticism. They noted that the task force involves agencies already working together and that no new resources are being provided to the already understaffed field teams, except for a call for volunteers from the Ministry of Justice. to increase the cannabis program from one employee to five. .
“I feel like the state came to our county, doused it in gasoline, set it on fire, then started congratulating themselves for giving us a garden hose to deal with what he had created,” Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall said.
The LA Times has identified more than a dozen government officials across the state who received income – ranging from thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands – from cannabis companies or who had interests in cannabis businesses. while they were still in office.
In some cases, local government officials have taken on the dual role of lobbyists or consultants for pot interests. The vast majority of cities do not have a registry of lobbyists or consultants to track this activity.
The payments are legal as long as officials disclose them and do not cast votes that would financially benefit the companies paying them.
But the charges in the two plea deals involving Pacheco and Chavez in Southern California go deeper, alleging a scheme in which officials used their offices to do favors for cannabis companies and other officials in exchange for bribes. -of-wine.
One such arrangement involved a former Huntington Park city manager, who also served as a business consultant and represented a cannabis company seeking a license in Baldwin Park, according to Chavez’s plea deal. The city manager signed a municipal contract for $14,500 for Chavez’s Internet marketing company while Chavez acted as a middleman for the kickbacks, funneling money to Pacheco, the documents show.
The no-tender contract “represented, in part, additional compensation for Chavez in his efforts to facilitate the bribe to Pacheco to obtain the marijuana license,” a Justice Department press release said. .
The documents do not name the former city manager of Huntington Park, but say he is currently the city’s commerce manager and served on the Montebello Unified School District board of trustees. That person is Edgar Cisneros.
Cisneros’ office referred the LA Times to Commerce City Attorney Noel Tapia, who said the city council is aware of the allegations and is monitoring the situation. He also noted that Cisneros was not charged in the investigation.
FBI agents have previously carried out several raids on local government officials, including the office of Baldwin Park City Attorney Robert Tafoya and the home of former Compton City Councilman Isaac Galvan.
Plea agreements announced last week allege that Tafoya, identified as Person 1, advised Pacheco how to set up the bribery scheme, including the use of an intermediary to channel the bribes. The agreements identify Person 1 as the attorney for the town of Baldwin Park.
On Wednesday evening, the Baldwin Park City Council voted unanimously to accept Tafoya’s resignation as city attorney.
His attorney, Mark Werksman, said Thursday that Tafoya’s “actions as city attorney were at all times legal and ethical,” and he accused Pacheco and Chavez of “laying charges against innocent people to save their own skin”.
Garcia said she hopes an attorney general’s task force will root out corruption and identify how cities can better oversee pot licensing to avoid conflicts of interest, and asked that the task force focus d first over southeastern Los Angeles County.
“Misusing public funds and corrupting our local democratic processes for personal gain is detrimental to governance,” Garcia said. “While I am a proponent of legal cannabis, I want to make sure it is done in a way that is fair and does not erode public confidence in our system.”