The Investigator, Robert Eringer
In mid-March an earthquake struck Santa Barbara.
No, it was not Ma Nature.
What happened was this: The city’s burghers were rattled by a story in Los Angeles Magazine that heaped allegations of corruption and abuse of power on at least one city official while questioning the judgment of City Administrator Paul Casey, Mayor Cathy Murillo and Police Chief Lori Luhnow, who had retired one month earlier.
These public officials would probably like for it to go away.
But here we are, not going away.
Let’s boil that story down to its bones for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with its contents — and for those who need reminding.
The piece, “In Sleepy Santa Barbara, a City Hall Insider is Raising Eyebrows” by Mitchell Kriegman, a former Santa Barbara resident now expatriating in Portugal, chronicles the rise and fall in Santa Barbara officialdom of one Anthony John Wagner who hails from San Diego and who attached himself to the city’s police chief Lori Luhnow, a fellow San Diegan, soon after Lori arrived here to commence her duties five years ago.
Mr. Wagner was named by Lori to a newly created (just for him) position in the Santa Barbara Police Department titled “Information and Engagement Manager.” Oddly, to make room for Mr. Wagner’s salary, Chief Luhnow dispensed with a deputy chief.
“What exactly is the relationship between Luhnow and Wagner?” Mr. Kriegman claimed to have posed to the pair. (Mr. Wagner, in a letter to Los Angeles Magazine demanding a retraction, disputes this: “Mitch Kriegman never reached out to me directly for comment.”)
Mr. Kriegman pointed out that the pair had served together on an alcohol policy panel in San Diego though little else is known about their relationship, whatever it may have once been or still is. (In his retraction demand, Mr. Wagner further states: “This innuendo intimates an improper relationship — that innuendo is false and defamatory to me … we were business colleagues in a professional capacity working on public health and safety issues.”)
ABUSE OF POWER?
Mr. Kriegman wrote that Mr. Wagner inappropriately used the police badge issued to him by Chief Luhnow at a local 7-Eleven to quiz a clerk about cigarette sales, as if he were a law enforcement officer, which he was not.
George Trujillo, the proprietor of Classic Barber on North Milpas Street, who happened to be present and in line, took exception to the hold up — and was approached by Mr. Wagner in an intimidating manner and told to “shut the f— up.” Mr. Trujillo told The Investigator that Mr. Wagner did not flash a badge (Mr. Kriegman got it wrong); Mr. Wagner was wearing a police department identity card around his neck.
Soon after Mr. Trujillo filed a complaint against Mr. Wagner, his barber shop was raided by seven narcotics officers who wanted to study his books — perhaps a retaliatory abuse of power. Mr. Trujillo told The Investigator his complaint against Mr. Wagner had been “sustained,” meaning — to Mr. Trujillo’s mind — that the findings were true.
States Mr. Wagner: “I was only sustained (by Chief Luhnow) for using profanity.” Sounds true enough.
Ten days after Mr. Kriegman’s article was published, says Mr. Trujillo, Interim Police Chief Bernard Melekian visited him at his barber shop to try to smooth things over. “But nothing came of it,” Mr. Trujillo told The Investigator. “And then Mayor Cathy Murillo calls from her personal cell phone at 7 p.m. on a Friday,” to schmooze him, or, as Mr. Trujillo put it, “to try to hush things up.”
Earlier, Mr. Wagner had been elevated by City Administrator Paul Casey to the role of spokesperson for City Hall and Mayor Cathy Murillo on COVID-19 related issues, albeit for only a month before returning to the force.
Mr. Kriegman then offered historical context on Mr. Wagner, implying that, while in San Diego, he was caught up in an FBI investigation of corruption pertaining to bribes received by public officials from strip clubs in Las Vegas and San Diego. (The New York Times reported in May 2003 that Mr. Wagner was a senior aide to Michael Zucchet, a San Diego City Council member convicted in 2005 for his part in accepting money “to be corruptly influenced” by the owners of Cheetah’s All Nude Club. Mr. Wagner was not charged in that case; soon after the event, he resigned from Mr. Zucchet’s staff. Mr. Wagner himself points out that he was “never a subject, a target or a witness in this probe.”)
Mr. Kriegman finally moseyed into his most serious point: Mr. Wagner, having involved himself in the burgeoning business of cannabis while a member of the San Diego Planning Board (2015), had voted to approve a license for a company called Golden State Greens to open (in San Diego) a marijuana dispensary.
Two years later, Mr. Wagner, by then ensconced in Santa Barbara government (wrote Mr. Kriegman), “was placed in charge of awarding highly valuable dispensary licenses in the booming Santa Barbara marijuana business by the city administrator,” Paul Casey.
Enter Adam Knopf, owner of Golden State Greens, who came up from San Diego to stake his claim, even though Santa Barbara City Council members had expressed a desire that only local owners and operators need apply.
When three of the eight applicants were finally selected, in a scoring process unseen by the public (but overseen by Mr. Wagner), Mr. Knopf’s Golden Gate Greens was one of the victors.
Wrote Mr. Krieger, “Wagner was the key player in the selection process.”
The implication: The selection process had been corrupted.
The kicker: Golden Gate Greens never opened a dispensary in Santa Barbara.
Instead, Golden Gate Greens flipped the license “at what many believe was a windfall profit” (Kriegman) to an out-of-state (Boca Raton, Fla.) operator called Jushi Holdings, a billion-dollar corporation.
Update: A representative from Jushi told The Investigator that the business, a publicly traded company, paid Golden State Greens $3.2 million for the license to operate a dispensary along with the lease on a building.
Mr. Wagner refutes being “a key player in the selection process.” In his retraction demand to Los Angeles Magazine, he writes, “My influence was no more and no less than five other city personnel who took part in the process” and points out that he had no involvement in the license “transfer” from Golden Gate Greens to Jushi.
Nonetheless, such licensing to a non-local entity and instant profiteering without ever opening their door for business leaves a sour taste and a bad odor.
As a consequence of Mr. Krieger’s magazine story, Anthony Wagner was placed on administrative leave by Chief Melekian while Mr. Wagner’s alleged connection to Golden Gate Greens is investigated by Sintra Group Professional Investigations, a Ventura-based private detective agency run by Steve Bowman, a retired Ventura deputy police chief who a decade ago cleared Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez of any wrongdoing in a scuffle with tough guy Wayne Scoles — and seems to be the city’s go-to whenever the image of its police department gets tarnished. Because Sintra also got the Peter Lance/DUI/police brouhaha assignment too.
The Lance report got sealed after the judge was tape-recorded asking the city attorney, “How should I rule on this?” (Back then, The Investigator exposed Chief Sanchez’s unethical behavior — and stands by that column.)
The results produced by Sintra on the Sanchez and Lance investigations were never made public even though Sintra was paid with public funds. This distinct lack of transparency seems to be a fanciful mandarin belief that the public does not have the right to know the results of taxpayer-funded investigations. The official ruling on this was privacy — in Mr. Lance’s case, the privacy of the police officer under investigation. But how can an investigation into the behavior of a police officer while on duty not be a public matter?
The Investigator has endeavored to come up-to-date on the aftermath of this story. But beyond providing a copy of his retraction demand letter to Los Angeles Magazine, Mr. Wagner declined to answer some very simple, straightforward questions, such as “Are you planning to file a defamation lawsuit?” “Are you still on administrative leave?”
The Investigator posed these questions to Police Chief Melekian instead:
Is Mr. Wagner still on administrative leave?
Has Sintra delivered its findings?
“The draft of the report is being reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office,” Chief Melekian responded in an email. “When the report is finalized, which I expect to occur in the next week or two, it will be released.”
The Investigator phoned and emailed Adam Knopf of Golden State Greens for his perspective on what really went down with Santa Barbara’s dispensary selection process, his reasons for flipping the license and how much moulah, precisely, he personally pocketed. Both attempts to reach Mr. Knopf for providing him the opportunity to set the record straight went unreturned.
His silence is troubling.
The vast amount of money at stake in the cannabis industry makes it an attractive target for politicians and public officials seeking to get rich quick. We’ve already heard whispers about a cash payoff of $10,000 that went down between a medical cannabis dispensary in Santa Barbara and a former SB City Council member (deposited into a Wells Fargo bank account). Names to be revealed once the legal eagles say go.
The Investigator is watching.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito resident with vast experience in investigative journalism. If you have a story idea for The Investigator, contact Mr. Eringer at email@example.com.