Cannabis Conflict? Should Supervisor Perez have recused herself in Kern marijuana vote?

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A report from the cannabis industry research firm BDS analytics estimates sales of cannabis in California will hit $3.7 billion in 2018 alone, and predicts that number will increase to $5.1 billion in 2019 as more dispensaries come online. 

Last October’s decision by the Kern County Board of Supervisors to ban the retail marijuana industry was a high stakes vote, in more ways than one.

It was a four-to-one vote, with 5th District Supervisor Leticia Perez the lone dissenter.

She favored regulating the industry and the new revenue stream it represented for the county.

But critics contend the board’s vote should have been a four-nothing vote, with one abstention.

Some stakeholders within the cannabis community believe Perez should have abstained, because she had a serious conflict of interest; a husband who was actively lobbying for cannabis clients.

17 News has learned that Perez’ husband Fernando Jara, in the run-up to the big vote, was very active at the local level, lobbying and consulting for cannabis stakeholders.

We asked the question of County Counsel Mark Nations last month: did Supervisor Leticia Perez have a conflict of interest in voting on whether to ban commercial marijuana businesses in Kern, given that her husband was consulting for cannabis clients?

Nations then said Perez herself broached the subject before the vote…but he concluded there was no conflict.

“He’s functioning as a consultant and is retained by somebody, but none of his activities pertained, as I understood it, to anything in Kern County,” explained Nations in January.

But 17 News has learned that wasn’t the case.

We know of at least five occasions where Fernando Jara and his associates met with county officials and others about pot policy…dispensary and land use regulations.

Jeff Flores, who is Chief of Staff for Supervisor Mike Maggard met in March of 2017 with Jara and dispensary owner David Abbasi.

“He briefed me on marijuana. As Mike’s principle land use advisor I would take meetings on any land use issues before the board,” explained Flores.

Flores was also present for another meeting, this one in Perez’ office in April of 2017, with Jara and representatives for Industrial Partners, a big Southland cannabis enterprise…talking land use regulations for cultivation and warehousing of marijuana.

“The supervisor herself, with Fernando Jara her husband and his clients, at that time, Steph Smith, Martin Smith and their attorney Ben Eilenberg. “

Supervisor David Couch’s Chief of Staff, Brandon Martin declined our request for an on-camera interview but did confirm a meeting he was asked to attend at Seven Oaks Country Club in the summer of 2017 with Jara and local marijuana advocate T.J. Esposito.

In a statement to 17 News Martin said: ” Our office meets with citizens on both sides of issues as part of our role in listening to the public. So, representing the office, I attended a lunch meeting with Fernando Jara. Fernando told me he was working with people active in the cannabis industry in the Humboldt area who would like to meet with Supervisor Couch and discuss cannabis regulation.” 

Then there were the numerous emails between Jara and County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt in July and August of 2017.

Jara asking for a meeting on behalf of his clients “Industrial Partners” to discuss the cannabis environmental impact report Oviatt had prepared.

In one email, Jara mentions several major developments and industrial properties his clients are interested in.

Cannabis advocate David Abbasi, who represents Central Valley Cannabis, a political action committee, has been slinging a lot of mud of late at supervisors, council members and other government officials.

In several emails to local stakeholder groups, he refers to Fernando Jara as his group’s consultant.

And local businessman Stan Ellis confirms that he had three meetings with Jara, and David Abbasi.

In a statement for 17 News, Ellis said,  “I met with Fernando Jara, at his request on thre occasions. he represented that David Abbasi was his client. There were three dates in early to mid-2017. One meeting with Fernando Jara and David Abbasi. One with Fernando Jara and Ben Eilenberg and a third meeting with Fernando and Abbasi.  On all three occasions we discussed their proposal to lease one of my buildings for cannabis warehousing, cultivation and dispensing. At one meeting I was offered cash for a lease desosit…$10,000. And I immediately declined.” 

So the question stands….given the activities of her husband on the local level, did Supervisor Perez have a conflict of interest in casting a vote on the cannabis ban in Kern County?

“Absolutely she should have abstained from the vote. I uh, now that all this has come out, I’m just disappointed,” said Heather Epps, co-founder of Kern Citizens for Patient Rights.

We went back to Mark Nations Wednesday with that question and with what we’ve learned.

“I can’t say. I would have to take a look at the information you have, some of which I have seen which is contained in the documents. I’m not familiar with the last one you mentioned.  but I would have to look at that in the context of the Political Reform Act and evaluate it in that context. I cannot sit here and tell you it would change anything,” said Nations.

District Attorney Lisa Green confirmed over the phone Wednesday her Public Integrity Unit is investigating allegations of wrongdoing involving the supervisors and is not limiting her investigation.

We reached out to both Supervisor Perez and her husband Fernando Jara  for interviews on this story.

The office of Supervisor Perez said she would not comment because County Counsel Nations advised her not to give any additional information on the matter.

Nations would not comment on privileged communications with Supervisor Perez.

After repeated request for an interview, Fernando Jara wrote in a text in part, “as I said before, I am not involved in the current circus acts being paraded in the media. I wish Supervisor [Mike] Maggard the best in this political mess of his.”

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