Anthony Wager, the public information officer for the Santa Barbara Police Department, has been cleared of all conflict of interest allegations in the awarding of cannabis licenses, according to a report by the third-party independent investigation released Thursday.
The 26-page report of the investigation details the findings of investigators Chuck Hoostra and Robert Valesquez of the Sintra Group. The investigation centered on allegations made in a Los Angeles Magazine article written by Mitchell Kriegman, which claimed that Mr. Wagner had a conflict of interest with Golden Stage Greens when participating in the city of Santa Barbara’s cannabis permitting process.
After an almost eight week investigation, officials came to the conclusion that there was “no conflict of interest between Anthony Wagner, Golden State Greens or any other applicants that participated in the City of Santa Barbara process,” according to the report.
“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,” Mr. Wagner told the News-Press in a statement. “I’m working with counsel to determine next steps.”
During the investigation, officials questioned Mr. Wagner’s relationship to Golden State Greens, which is owned by businessman Adam Knopf of San Diego. Before coming to Santa Barbara, Mr. Wagner was the planning commissioner for the city of San Diego and was the executive director of the Southern California Responsible Growers Council.
When Mr. Wagner came to Santa Barbara, he joined the Cannabis Application Review Team and played a role in developing a cannabis regulatory ordinance for the city.
In the initial L.A. Magazine report, Mr. Kriegman alleged that Mr. Wagner had a conflict of interest with Mr. Knopf’s business, which the writer claimed was overlooked by the city of Santa Barbara. Golden State Greens was one of three dispensaries selected to receive a highly-coveted recreational cannabis license in 2018 after another group, SGSB Inc., was eliminated.
Investigators probed Mr. Wagner, Assistant City Attorney Tava Ostrenger, Senior Assistant to the City Administrator Matt Fore, Fire Inspector Ryan Digiulio and City Project Planner Andrew Bermond with questions related to Mr. Wagner’s relationship to Mr. Knopf during the investigation.
During his interview, Mr. Wagner admitted that he did know Mr. Knopf, recalling that he was part of approving Mr. Knopf’s application for a marijuana dispensary in San Diego in March 2015. However, Mr. Wagner told investigators that he “never had a personal relationship with Knopf” and did not have any contact with him prior to Golden State Greens’ application with the city of Santa Barbara, according to the report.
Ms. Ostrenger verified Mr. Wagner’s claims in her interview, recalling that Mr. Wagner told her that he did not have a personal relationship with Mr. Knopf.
She also told investigators that Mr. Wagner told her in 2018 that he had sought legal advice on a personal matter from Attorney Gina Austin, who later represented Mr. Knopf for a commercial cannabis business permit in Santa Barbara. Ms. Ostrenger said the fact that the same attorney was counsel to both Mr. Wagner and Mr. Knopf was “purely a coincidence,” according to the report.
The report noted that investigators attempted to make contact with Mr. Knopf, but only received an email response. In his email, Mr. Knopf said he’d “rather not get caught up in the fake news or fake investigation,” later adding that he had heard of Mr. Wagner but did not “know the guy other than him being a city employee.”
After the release of the report Thursday, SBPD Interim Chief Bernard Melekian said he was “not surprised” by the outcome of the investigation, adding that there were a number of “concerns” about the L.A. Magazine article to begin with.
“I think there was always a sense that the allegations of conflict of interest were unfounded and there were pieces of that story that were simply not accurate,” Mr. Melekian told the News-Press.
He later added, “I do view this as an exoneration of Anthony in terms of what the allegations were in that article.”
Though the results of the investigation are now complete, Mr. Melekian did not disclose Friday whether or not Mr. Wagner would be returning to his role as the SBPD’s PIO any time soon.
John Doimas, the assistant city attorney, said he was also unsurprised by the results of the investigation, adding that he was “pleased that there was overall no wrongdoing.”