No Conflict of Interest Found in Cannabis Licensing Scandal; L.A. Magazine Stands by Story
It’s now been two months since Los Angeles Magazine published a bombshell exposé by former Montecito Journal reporter Mitchell Kriegman claiming marijuana-related corruption inside Santa Barbara’s City Hall. At the center of Kriegman’s sprawling, roughly 4,000-word story, which the Journal declined to publish last year before Kriegman departed from the paper, was the contention that Anthony Wagner, an official spokesperson for the police department who also helped supervise the city’s cannabis dispensary licensing process, had an improper relationship with Adam Knopf, owner of Golden State Greens, a cannabis dispensary that won a lucrative permit from the city. After winning the license, Knopf flipped the license to another, out-of-state company, Jushi, Inc., reportedly for a seven-figure financial windfall.
Following Kriegman’s story, interim Santa Barbara Police Chief Barney Melekian placed Wagner on administrative leave, and City Attorney Ariel Calonne announced that the city would investigate the charges, outsourcing the investigation to the Sintra Group consulting firm.
On May 12, the Sintra Group came back with its report. “Based on the documents reviewed, the articles written, and the interviews conducted, it is our opinion that there was no conflict of interest between Anthony Wagner, Golden State Greens, or any of the other applicants that participated in the City of Santa Barbara process,” the report stated. “Golden State Greens was not given any preferential scoring treatment.”
Specifically, the report found, “Golden State Greens was not among the three applicants initially chosen to receive a license. However, one of the competitors, SGSB, Inc. was disqualified because their location was within 1,000 feet from another commercial cannabis storefront retailer,” something prohibited under the city’s municipal code. “As a result, Golden State Greens moved up into the final three and was issued the license.”
Digging deeper into the allegations raised in the L.A. Magazine story, the Sintra Group attempted to interview all the alleged key players Golden State Greens, including Micah Anderson, identified by Kriegman as Knopf’s partner in the dispensary. Although Anderson and Knopf had partnered together for a separate dispensary application in Pasadena, Anderson said he had nothing to do with Knopf’s bid to operate in Santa Barbara. And although Wagner, a former San Diego planning commissioner with a background in helping dispensaries obtain permits there, had met Anderson at a previous industry conference, he didn’t have “any contact with Anderson during the Santa Barbara application process.”
In his interview with the Sintra Group, Wagner claimed that he “had no contact with anyone from Golden State Greens prior to their application process in Santa Barbara,” according to the report. Although Wagner knew Knopf from San Diego when, as a planning commissioner, he approved an application by Knopf to operate a dispensary in the city, contrary to Kriegman’s characterization, the two men were never business partners.
The Sintra Group’s finding that Wagner hadn’t behaved unethically in his handling of Santa Barbara’s dispensary licensing process doesn’t seem surprising, a sentiment expressly stated by Melekian himself, when contacted by the Journal this week. “The report was quite clear that there was no conflict, a fact which I did not find surprising,” Melekian said.
Contacted by the Journal, Wagner said he was happy to be vindicated. “I’m extremely pleased with the expediency and thoroughness of the now-concluded independent third-party investigation, which yielded findings clearing me and others of the unsubstantiated allegations published by Los Angeles Magazine,” he said. “I’m working with counsel to determine next steps.”
However, Kriegman’s editor Maer Roshan said he was standing by Kriegman’s story. Despite having made corrections to the original version, L.A. Magazine hadn’t in any way “retracted” the journalist’s reporting, he said. “Correcting and acknowledging an error is very different from retracting a whole story,” said Roshan.
For now, Wagner’s future with the city is unclear; the Journal’s inquiries to Wagner’s superiors regarding his status weren’t answered by press time. But to one veteran City Hall observer, Pat McElroy, Santa Barbara’s former fire chief, the damage already done to Wagner is irreversible. “It never mattered if it was true or not,” he said of the allegations raised in the magazine story. “It was designed to damage reputation. Unfortunately, it appears to have been successful.”