Court documents point to ‘pay to play’ scheme between marijuana dispensaries and City Council
on November 16, 2016
A new set of documents filed in an ongoing court case suggest that the heads of Richmond’s three medical marijuana dispensaries may have paid City Councilmembers to back legislation favorable to the dispensaries.
The documents, which were filed with the Contra Costa Superior Court on Nov. 3 and Nov. 9, are part of a lawsuit brought by Richmond Compassionate Care Collective (RCCC) against the dispensaries, their owners, and others that the collective—a dispensary that has tried to open shop in the city for six years without success—alleges conspired to monopolize the local medical marijuana trade.
The documents, which include a series of declarations made under oath and compiled by plaintiff RCCC’s attorney in late October and the attorney for the defense in early November, give conflicting accounts of the ways in which local dispensary heads interacted with Richmond politicians, police officers and prominent community members. Plaintiffs allege backdoor dealings, greased palms and illegal payments, while the defense denies implications of bribery, saying the accusations are false and made by individuals seeking revenge.
In one of the documents, a sworn statement given to an RCCC attorney on Oct. 24, Richmond Police Sergeant Michael Rood recalled an April 2015 conversation with his colleague Detective Erik Oliver and Rebecca Vasquez, the president and executive director of Holistic Healing Collective dispensary. During this conversation, Rood said, Vasquez and an associate repeatedly bragged that they “pay the City Council to get what they want.”
At the time, Rood and Oliver were both officers in RPD’s Regulatory Unit, which oversees the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries. Declarations filed by defense attorneys suggest that Rood, whom the documents say was implicated in the case involving the woman formerly known as Celeste Guap, was later “disciplined, demoted and removed” from the unit. But records from the Richmond City Manager’s office state that as of Nov. 15, Rood is still on the city’s payroll as a sergeant. (In sworn statements submitted to the court, both Rood and Oliver stated they no longer work on the unit but did not provide reasons for their reassignments.)
According to Rood’s declaration, Vasquez said she “paid $8,000 to City Councilmembers to make certain” that an amendment to a city ordinance that would limit the available number of permits given to dispensaries “would pass.”
“I interpreted this to mean an illegal payment or a bribe to City Councilmembers,” Rood said in the statement. He added that Vasquez “did not ever try to claim that the payment was a campaign contribution.”
In an interview last week, Vasquez’s lawyer denied that Vasquez made such statements and dismissed the claims as “hearsay.” The lawyer said that Vasquez was unavailable for comment.
Other sworn statements included among the plaintiff’s documents, from RPD detective Oliver and former Holistic Healing Collective employee Nicole Hilts, specifically named sitting City Councilmembers Jael Myrick and Jovanka Beckles as recipients of questionable payments from dispensary owners.
In interviews last week, both Councilmembers emphatically denied the claims.
“I’m very offended that there is something like this that is on the record and is not true at all,” Beckles said.
Myrick too said the charges are false and that, while Richmond dispensary owners have contributed to his political campaigns, he has never received the off-the-books payouts described in the documents.
“I have never, ever taken cash contributions from any of these dispensaries,” he said.
Campaign finance filings show that in 2016, Myrick, who was reelected to City Council last week, has received about $10,000 from medical marijuana dispensaries or their proprietors—including $2,500 from Vasquez.
Campaign finance reports also show that Beckles received $500 from Vasquez in 2014.
But the court documents suggest a pattern of questionable payments to the City Council—where prominent “community organizers” decide the fate of new businesses. An Oct. 24 declaration from RCCC attorney Brad Hirsch said that one of those organizers, Antwon Cloird, told Hirsch, “you gots to pay to play.”
In the Oct. 24 declaration, Brad Hirsch described a July 2015 meeting with Jerrold Hatchett and Antwon Cloird, two Richmond community members who, he said, have “influence on the Richmond City Council.” According to Hirsch’s statement, Cloird, who is named in the lawsuit, and Hatchett (who is not) told Hirsch that if RCCC did not “pay Hatchett and Defendant Cloird to facilitate Plaintiff RCCC’s entry into the Richmond marketplace,” Cloird would again organize community opposition to the dispensary.
“Defendant Cloird advised that Hatchett would handle the political people, meaning City Councilmembers, and that he would handle the community people,” Hirsch said in the declaration.
Cloird, his attorney and Hatchett did not respond to requests for comment.
One week after the meeting with Cloird and Hatchett, Hirsch said he paid the men $15,000, according to the Oct. 24 declaration.
The documents suggest that this was not the first—or the only—time money flowed from a dispensary to a Richmond City Councilmember.
Holistic Healing Collective employee Hilts said in an Oct. 31 declaration that her boss, Vasquez, “often bragged” about her “connections” in the city. Hilts said in her sworn statement that on several occasions she saw one of Vasquez’s associates, Lisa Hirschhorn, “pick up money from Rebecca Vasquez which Lisa Hirschhorn commented was ‘for the City Council.’”
Hirschhorn, along with Vasquez, is also named in the lawsuit. Hirschhorn’s attorney did not respond to request for comment.
Hilts, who worked in Vasquez’s shop as a “budtender,” said in the declaration that anyone entering the dispensary needed to first show a medical cannabis card, then get buzzed in. But, Hilts said, when Councilmembers Myrick and Beckles came to the shop, she never saw a card.
Instead, Hilts said in her statement, Beckles and Myrick collected envelopes.
“Due to the size of the envelopes and the thickness of the item contained inside the envelope, I believed that the envelopes contained cash,” Hilts said in her declaration. “I do not believe that the envelopes contained cannabis because the cannabis is wrapped differently.”
Beckles said that she has only been to Holistic Healing Collective twice, both times for an event.
“I know for a fact that I didn’t get an envelope with cash,” Beckles said. “I have never, ever been in there to collect any kind of envelope.”
Myrick said that he has stopped by the dispensary and picked up envelopes, but that those envelopes contained checks made out to his campaign, which he later disclosed in a filing. They were legal political contributions, he said, not envelopes containing cash.
The court documents also say Vasquez left cash for Councilmembers elsewhere.
According to the Oct. 26 declaration of her former business partner, Darron Price, Vasquez in conjunction with the proprietors of Richmond’s other two dispensaries, working together under the moniker “the Group,” left money at “the hotdog stand across the street from the Richmond City Hall for unnamed City Councilmembers.”
“On one occasion, Rebecca Vasquez told me that she left $2,500 for an unnamed City Councilmember,” Price said in his declaration.
Natalia Thurston, attorney for Vasquez and Holistic Healing Collective, said each of these declarations was made by a person with “improper” and “ulterior” motives. The documents filed by lawyers for the defense—including Thurston—in response to the declarations filed by RCCC’s attorney further detail those motives.
In her own declaration, made under oath on Nov. 7 and filed by attorneys for the defense, Vasquez denied making any payments to City Councilmembers that were not reported campaign contributions.
“Neither I, nor to my knowledge, any other board member, officer, employee or agent of [Holistic Healing Collective] has given any money to Richmond City Council members except for campaign contributions that have been reported as such,” she said.
Vasquez also said in her statement that Rood sent her “numerous inappropriate and sexually suggestive text messages” while working on the Regulatory Unit and making weekly in-person visits to her dispensary. She responded to him, she said, out of fear that if she did not he would retaliate against her business’s permit.
Vasquez said that Rood was “disciplined, demoted and removed from the Regulatory Unit” in June 2016 “for his improper sexual activity with” the woman formerly known as Celeste Guap. An RPD spokesperson said that Rood and RPD detective Oliver are still city employees but declined to provide further detail or comment on Rood’s involvement with Guap.
“The officers are still employed with the city and they’re not available for any comment regarding any ongoing civil lawsuits,” the spokesperson, Lieutenant Felix Tan, said.
City Manager Bill Lindsay, whose office oversees city departments including the police force, also declined to comment, citing state laws that prevent him from doing so.
“State law prohibits the city of Richmond from disclosing disciplinary actions or personnel records of police officers,” he said.
In her declaration, Vasquez also challenged the declarations of Price and Hilt, stating that they are two former associates acting in retaliation against her.
“All of these allegations are hearsay without any substantive evidence to back them up and they’re all being made with an improper motive to cause harm to Rebecca [Vasquez],” said Vasquez’s attorney.
In a declaration made under oath on Nov. 9, Hirschhorn also denied paying City Councilmembers. “I have never bribed or attempted to bribe any City Council members or any other federal, state or local government officials,” she said.
Hirschhorn too said that the attacks against her were “motivated by revenge.” In her declaration, she said that she had a relationship with Oliver that ended after about five years.
“At one point, I rebuffed Oliver’s sexual advances,” she said. “Ever since, Oliver has been furious with me, and has attempted to punish me.”
The RPD spokesperson declined to comment on Hirschhorn’s claim.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 17, at which point the court will decide whether it will move forward with the case or side with a motion to strike filed by the defendants.
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