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Unsealed letter accuses Arkansas marijuana growing applicant of trying to bribe commissioner

By Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Staff and Wire Reports

This article was originally published June 7, 2018 at 12:20 p.m. Updated June 7, 2018 at 6:23 p.m.

6 P.M. UPDATE:

LITTLE ROCK — An attorney for a company that unsuccessfully applied for a license to grow medical marijuana in Arkansas called the process for permitting such businesses "flawed and corrupt" Thursday as state Supreme Court justices questioned whether a judge had the power to prevent those licenses from being issued.

The state attorney general's office, meanwhile, said in a previously sealed court document that a member of the commission accused another unsuccessful applicant of trying to bribe him.

[DOCUMENT: Read the unsealed letter]

Justices heard arguments in the state's appeal of a decision that prevents the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission from awarding its first cultivation licenses. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen in March ruled that the licensing process violated a state constitutional amendment voters approved in 2016 legalizing marijuana for patients with certain conditions.

Griffen ruled in favor of an unsuccessful applicant who had challenged the commission's decision to issue permits to five businesses. The company, Naturalis Health, cited two potential conflicts of interest by members of the commission. It also claimed officials did not verify applicants' assertions that their facilities would be the required distance from churches, schools and day cares. Naturalis ranked 38th out of the 95 applications submitted, officials have said.

"[The company's] investigation revealed substantial evidence of arbitrary, capricious actions by the commission, evidence that established that the decision was characterized by an abuse of discretion and, in sum, a process that was conducted by the Medical Marijuana Commission that was fundamentally flawed and corrupt," Jay Bequette, an attorney for Naturalis, told justices.

Attorneys for the state and the companies that were set to receive the licenses, however, argued that Griffen's court didn't have jurisdiction to hear Naturalis' complaint.

"Agencies make administrative decisions, not adjudications, every day throughout this state and those are not subject to judicial review, and we would submit to you that that area of the law need not be disturbed in this case," said Casey Castleberry, an attorney for Bold Team LLC, one of the five cultivation facilities.

Griffen's ruling effectively halted the launch of Arkansas' medical marijuana program. State officials in April announced the commission would stop reviewing applications for dispensaries to sell medical marijuana in response to Griffen's ruling. Arkansas has approved more than 5,300 applications for patients to use medical marijuana and will issue registry cards about a month before the drug is expected to be available legally.

Hours after the hearing, the Supreme Court lifted a protective order and unsealed a letter filed this week by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office detailing an allegation made by a member of the commission that another unsuccessful applicant, Natural State Agronomics, had offered to bribe him. The commissioner, who is not named in the letter, said he did not accept the bribe but did not report it. In the letter, Rutledge's office said most of the allegations remain unsubstantiated but are being investigated by law enforcement.

Attorneys for Natural State Agronomics did not respond to messages left Thursday afternoon. The letter said that the commissioner gave the company the second-highest score he awarded and higher than it received from the other four commissioners, but said there was no evidence he based his scoring on the offer. Dr. Carlos Roman, the only member of the panel to award his second-highest score to Natural State Agronomics, did not immediately return a call late Thursday afternoon.

Justices did not indicate when they would rule.

Read Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.

— The Associated Press

2 P.M. UPDATE:

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday unsealed a letter from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, which contains allegations that one of the companies applying for a medical marijuana growing permit tried to bribe a member of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission.

The commissioner, who was not named in the letter, said he did not accept the bribe from Natural State Agronomics, Rutledge wrote, but the commissioner did give the company the second-highest score among all his graded applications.

The allegations were presented to Rutledge’s office last week, according to the letter. She had asked the court to leave the letter sealed because it may contain information privileged by attorney-client privelege and because it was part of an ongoing investigation by a law enforcement agency.

Robert Tschiemer and attorney for Natural State Agronomics didn’t immediately respond to a phone message requesting comment.

Dr. Carlos Roman, one of the five Medical Marijuana Commissioners, gave the company his second-highest score. He has been the subject of several complaints of bias in scoring in relation to the applicant he gave his highest score to — Natural State Medicinals Cultivation. One of the stakeholders in that company, Dr. Scott Schlesinger, has a personal and professional relationship with Roman.

Roman declined to comment Thursday. In a previous interview, Roman denied that his relationship with Schlesinger affected his scoring.

— Hunter Field

EARLIER:

Arkansas’ Supreme Court justices Thursday morning asked pointed questions of attorneys on both sides of the medical marijuana industry debate.

Most of the questions centered around whether Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen had the authority to toss out the state’s process for selecting the first five growers of medical marijuana in Arkansas.

A variety of issues — including bias and irregularities in the scoring process — has been alleged by several companies who applied unsuccessfully for a growing permit. But attorneys for the successful companies and the state argued that those matters are irrelevant because Griffen didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter, which should’ve been handled by the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

Attorneys expect the high court to issue a ruling in the coming weeks, and that decision will have a major impact on when medical cannabis will be available in the Natural State.

— Hunter Field

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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 total comments

independentlythinking says... June 7, 2018 at 1:38 p.m.

Oh boy, this should be a surprise outcome...

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LRAttorneyCrime says... June 7, 2018 at 1:47 p.m.

That would be the worse decision ever! "But attorneys for the successful companies and the state argued that those matters are irrelevant because Griffen didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter, which should’ve been handled by the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division."

Now let's see the MMC and ABC should have had the jurisdiction to police themselves and say that Story and Roman were biased in their grading? Really! Now on what planet would anybody believe that would ever happen? Talking about the "appearance of bias!"

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JMort69 says... June 7, 2018 at 3:41 p.m.

I just finished reading the revised indictment against Rusty Cranford. It is huge and disgusting. Multiple bribes, fund-raisers thrown by Cranford, et al for AR candidates including gubenatorial candidates, "Senator A", reportedly Jeremy Hutchinson, the governor's nephew, is in it up to his neck. Millions of our tax dollars paid in kickbacks for GIF grants. Some of the money was hidden in real estate purchases. One has to wonder, since Cranford was also directing the Ecclesia scam, if one of the real estate purchases was the one for which Bob Ballinger served as title attorney and in which a price of three times the assessed value was paid. There are still a number of unnamed AR legislators involved and, the indictment repeatedly indicates that some of the participants may still be unknown to the feds. And now, we find apparent bribery in the MM mess. My God, do we have anyone in Little Rock not on the take? I'm too tired and repulsed to go on today. I'm just going to have some wine and try again tomorrow. OUR LEGISLATURE IS A PIG STY!!

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tahmo54 says... June 7, 2018 at 4:50 p.m.

A corrupt legislature wants to take control over the courts. Vote NO on Issue One.

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mrcharles says... June 7, 2018 at 4:55 p.m.

Why dont they just let the criminal syndicates have a say in this, either way, whether through the guberment or criminals, same ole same ole happens, the powers that be didnt get to be the powers that be by being honest. Now you trumpetts dont try to retort that orange man was chosen by god to be different, as evidently his syndicate of followers may be worse than ever.

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LRAttorneyCrime says... June 7, 2018 at 5:49 p.m.

JMosrt...just like we were talking on the other story, there goes MrCharles with his political comments again. They just don't understand that spouting off their hatred of Trump and anyone who supports him does not further the conversation about the corruption and how to fix it. No different than the ones that hated Obama would spout off "he was not American born," or "He is a Muslim!" I am beginning to think that there is no use as people will continue to vote Democrat or Republican and believe that their guy can do no wrong.

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lbradley says... June 8, 2018 at 7:01 a.m.

Why not make it a lottery between all of the companies that meet the criteria? At least the companies that were not drawn wont have very much of an argument as to why they were not chosen.

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LRAttorneyCrime says... June 18, 2018 at 8:10 a.m.

lbradley..."Why not make it a lottery..."
*
Great idea, and maybe what they should have done in the beginning. However, now that all of the applicants have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to maximize every point changing to lottery would be negligent. These applicants would have spent much less just getting their application in the pot, to be pulled for the lottery, than they spent to maximize points. I see huge lawsuits if this comes about.

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