City leaders spoke out on Thursday regarding what they referred to as “seriously misleading and false assertions published in Los Angeles Magazine” regarding the Santa Barbara Police Department’s civilian public information officer, Anthony Wagner, who is currently on administrative leave.
The piece — which was written by former Nickelodeon television writer and producer Mitchell Kriegman — alleges “remarkably high city administrative salary levels” and “the awarding of pot dispensary licenses.”
Mr. Kriegman, a Santa Barbara resident, declined to comment on his reporting.
Interim Police Chief Bernard Melekian announced that the department is close to retaining a firm to conduct an outside investigation into Mr. Wagner’s relationship with individuals from San Diego who allegedly had connections to Golden State Greens. The name of the firm conducting the investigation is likely to be released on Monday, Chief Melekian told the News-Press.
The investigation is expected to take up to eight weeks.
“Mr. Wagner has been extremely cooperative, and looks forward to an opportunity to clear his name,” Chief Melekian said in a statement. “Nevertheless, the article raised some potentially new information concerning Mr. Wagner’s relationship with two people from San Diego who allegedly had connections with Golden State Greens.”
The interim chief said in a statement last week that most of the allegations have been previously investigated, either within the police department or the city attorney’s office.
In addition, Los Angeles Magazine issued a correction to its story about one of the alleged individuals involved in the cannabis dispensary license applications. The correction reads: “A prior version of this story incorrectly identified Micah Anderson as one of the owners that applied for a cannabis dispensary license for Golden State Greens in Santa Barbara. The information we have been provided since the article was published shows that Mr. Anderson was neither an owner of Golden State Greens nor involved in the application process in Santa Barbara. We apologize for any confusion.”
However, the article still alleges that Mr. Wagner voted to approve a Medical Marijuana Consumer Cooperative for Adam Knopf, owner of Golden State Greens. The MMCC had been denied three months earlier due to concern that the dispensaries would be used for retail, and the article alleges that “advocating for his associates” represents “significant conflicts.”
“Even as subsequent news stories have revealed some details and history, the council and the public must be satisfied regarding the process and the conduct of the individuals involved,” Mayor Cathy Murillo said in a statement to the News-Press. “Our council will take action if the report’s findings require action.
“A lawsuit alleging fraudulent processes was dismissed with prejudice by a federal court, and the city had its expenses covered. Some questions have been raised about the transfer of the license from one owner to another. The transfer was allowed under our ordinance and the new owner had to undergo a vetting process.”
The city backed up its Commercial Cannabis Ordinance, saying it was “careful to design a fair process that would protect the interests of its residents and visitors.” City Administrator Paul Casey, City Attorney Ariel Calonne and Chief Melekian issued a joint statement on the allegations and a fact sheet providing the history of the cannabis ordinance and who was involved.
In the statement, they wrote, “The City Council directed a competitive business selection process in order to bring the best companies to Santa Barbara. The integrity of that process was questioned by Los Angeles Magazine, apparently without the benefit of even minimal local investigation.”
They wrote that Mr. Wagner was one of five city staff who evaluated permit applications. He did so alongside a fire inspector, a capital projects supervisor, the deputy finance director and the assistant city attorney. Each individual signed acknowledgement of their ethical duties, including avoiding any situation with an impropriety or a conflict of interest, not disclosing any confidential information, treating all prospective applicants with objectivity and equal conduct and maintaining the integrity of the competitive process.
The cannabis ordinance also prohibits permit transfers to prevent a “bait and switch” when an unqualified transferee slips into the Santa Barbara market after a fair competitive process.
Los Angeles Magazine alleged that Mr. Wagner developed the numerical scoring system for applicants but did not open the process to the public, and “as concern developed,” he defended the system. Then, in July 2018, Golden Gate Greens was selected for a license, but never used it. Instead, Golden State Greens sold the license to Jushi, a company based out of Boca Raton, Florida.
The article says speculation estimates the price of the license was approximately $7 million.
“Even though Golden State Greens never opened a store and simply sold the license at what many believe was a windfall profit, the city did not restart the scoring process or notify the next company that had likely spent significant funds to prepare an application,” the article reads.
In response to the allegations, Mr. Wagner sent out a demand for retraction, saying the article is defamatory to him. He wrote, “I had zero associate, personal, professional or financial relationship with any involved party. I only knew Mr. Knopf in an official capacity as a quasi-judicial official. I did not meet Mr. Anderson until much later, at least a year after that land use decision — Mr. Kriegman misstates chronological time and order.”
He also said that the point system was adapted “from several similar sized jurisdictions that had already implemented a points process” and not by just him, but also the city attorney’s office and community development.
Mr. Kriegman wrote in the story that Mr. Wagner refused multiple requests for interviews and did not respond to submitted questions, but the PIO said in response, “Mr. Kriegman never reached out to me directly.”
Mr. Wagner said he welcomes the investigation to “clear his good name.”