Cannabis licensing snafu over O’Brien much ado about nothing
Poor internal communication at CCC blamed for holdup
THE CANNABIS Control Commission unanimously approved a final license for Greenfield Greenery on Thursday, resolving a months-long delay resulting from questions about whether Commission Chair Shannon O’Brien properly removed herself from ownership of the company.
A commission investigation concluded that O’Brien and Greenfield Greenery both did everything properly in removing O’Brien from her ownership position. Indeed, the investigation found the licensing delay, which officials at Greenfield Greenery said caused them financial hardship, came about in large part due to poor communication between members of the Cannabis Control Commission and commission staff.
The commission approved the license 3-0, with O’Brien recusing herself, and commissioner Ava Callender Concepcion absent from the meeting for personal reasons.
O’Brien said after the meeting, “I’m glad now, given the staff’s report, that people can see I acted in an ethical way and I acted in a transparent way.”
As soon as she was sworn in in September, O’Brien disclosed publicly, in a story in CommonWealth, that she had been a partner in Greenfield Greenery and had consulted for another cannabis company but was no longer involved with either one. She also disclosed that information to commission staff, the state treasurer, who appointed her, and other state agencies.
Several weeks later, the Boston Herald splashed the story on its front page, questioning whether O’Brien had a conflict of interest. That prompted some marijuana activists to protest her appointment; Boston Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld called for her to resign or be fired.
In October, Greenfield Greenery came before the Cannabis Control Commission for final license approval, but commissioners delayed approval, seeking an investigation into whether O’Brien and the company had properly executed the change of ownership that removed O’Brien’s financial interest.
The delay was costly for Greenfield Greenery owners Angie and Randy Facey, dairy farmers who said they submitted every piece of paperwork the commission asked for.
Angie Facey said Thursday that she is “elated” to have gotten the license, and is hopeful the controversy will not scare off investors. “We are frustrated it took so very, very long to get there but hope we can overcome this obstacle and persevere,” she said.
The investigation by the Cannabis Control Commission, detailed in a public report written by investigations manager Katherine Binkoski, confirmed what O’Brien and the Faceys said: O’Brien left the company nearly a year before her appointment as commission chair, and Greenfield Greenery submitted the paperwork that commission staff required to remove O’Brien from ownership.
The core of the problem appears to be that the commissioners themselves, at their October meeting, were not aware of the decisions that commission staff had made. The commissioners spent much of that meeting questioning why Greenfield Greenery never submitted a change of ownership form for their approval. But the investigation found that commission staff had determined that Greenfield Greenery was not required to submit a change of ownership form. Greenfield Greenery informed the commission that O’Brien had left the company in other paperwork it submitted when it renewed its license.
Director of licensing Kyle Potvin clarified at Thursday’s commission meeting that when a company adds a person who has ownership or control, that needs to be approved by the Cannabis Control Commission. But if a company removes a person from ownership or control, as occurred with O’Brien, they must notify the commission, but the change does not require commission approval. So there would be no reason for the paperwork to go before the full commission.
The investigation also found that O’Brien disclosed her prior work to the state treasurer, the State Ethics Commission, and the Cannabis Control Commission itself. When meeting with the Ethics Commission, she “was advised there was no conflict of interest if she assumed the role of Chair of the Commission,” the report found.
Potvin said the investigation makes clear that “Shannon O’Brien in her personal capacity does not have an ownership stake over this license any longer.”
The investigation did find two unrelated problems with Greenfield Greenery’s paperwork, both of which have been corrected. The company did not disclose when it hired Koeju John Song as CEO. Song was being removed from ownership of another company. While that removal process was ongoing, his involvement in both companies gave him control over more marijuana crops than was legally allowed.
Separately, Greenfield Greenery applied to the commission for permission to hire Elizabeth Stainton as a manger and give her company shares, but then the company hired her before the commission approved its application. In light of the investigation, both Song and Stainton resigned from their positions of control in Greenfield Greenery until the commission approved the necessary paperwork, which was done Thursday.
Asked after the meeting whether the issue was essentially a miscommunication between staff and commissioners, Commissioner Nurys Camargo disputed that characterization. “It’s not that there’s a miscommunication between staff and us as commissioners, there’s some stuff they just can’t tell us,” Camargo said. “If it’s not fully baked, it’s not coming to us.” Camargo said there were “hard questions” that had to be answered through the investigation, and she is now satisfied that they have been.
“I’m glad that our team took the time to dig in for the change of ownership, and it takes time,” Camargo said.
This is not the first time that an apparent disconnect between commission staff and commissioners led to a public flap. After an October public meeting, commissioners said they learned of the death of a marijuana company employee from the media, months after her death. The next day, however, the commission clarified that the company told commission staff immediately about the worker’s death, and an investigation into the company was underway. However, the commissioners themselves had not been notified.O’Brien referred to the worker death in comments Thursday when she suggested that there may be room for the commission to act in a more transparent manner. “While I understand the need for the investigative team to do their investigation and maintain a sense of confidentiality, I do believe there are certain things we can be doing to be more transparent about our work without compromising those investigations,” O’Brien said. “I’ve heard from some people saying I’m a former District Attorney, I worked murder cases, I gave more information to the people charged with murder than sometimes we give to some of our applicants or licensees.”