ICYMI: Allegations Of Corruption Continue To Dog Mike Parson’s Re-election Chances
“In the wake of the investigations, the race has become increasingly competitive, according to polls and rating services.”
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson just can’t escape the allegations of rampant corruption that benefits well-connected Jefferson City insiders – and they are seriously hindering his chances in the governor’s race this fall.
Over the weekend, Parson’s issues were highlighted in a piece by POLITICO, which outlined the myriad of accusations surrounding the Parson administration’s handling of medical marijuana licensing. The Parson administration’s rollout of the medical marijuana program was so suspicious that even members of Parson’s own party demanded an investigation into the state’s medical marijuana program.
The allegations center around Parson’s relationship with his long-time friend and advisor Steve Tilley, a lobbyist with medical marijuana clients. While other Missourians tried and failed to navigate the complex application process for a medical marijuana license, Tilley received special treatment for more than a dozen clients involved in the medical marijuana industry.
All of these investigations do not bode well for Parson in an election year. Recent polling shows Democratic candidate State Auditor Nicole Galloway has eliminated Parson’s early lead and multiple ratings agencies have moved the race towards Galloway.
After Missouri voted to legalize medical marijuana in November 2018, the state’s new Republican governor, Mike Parson, moved quickly to certify tens of thousands of patients and begin licensing cannabis businesses.
But what seemed at first to be an easy source of voter satisfaction and a new cache of revenue to the state has boomeranged badly: A flood of complaints led to state and federal corruption probes that now threaten Parson’s 2020 campaign.
The governor’s close personal friend and fundraiser, Steve Tilley, is at the center of the probes. He represented lucrative clients who appeared to receive a boost in the licensing process. The campaign of Parson’s presumptive Democratic opponent, State Auditor Nicole Galloway, put out a taunting memo declaring, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
In the wake of the investigations, the race has become increasingly competitive, according to polls and rating services. While Missouri is firmly red when it comes to presidential elections, state offices are another matter: Democrat Jay Nixon served two terms as governor from 2009 to 2017. POLITICO rates the governor’s race as “Lean Republican,” though many observers acknowledge that Galloway is making significant inroads.
Dissatisfaction with Parson’s handling of marijuana goes beyond just his close ties to Tilley, which date back to when both men were members of the state legislature. The Parson administration’s decision to cap the number of state licenses has led to a staggering number of administrative appeals — more than 800. A lawsuit aiming to overturn the cap heads to trial this fall.
“What they’re doing with the medical marijuana business looks a lot like what Republican rhetoric accuses Democrats of doing with government,” said Michael Wolff, a Democrat and former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court who supported the legalization campaign in 2018. “The libertarian side of the Republican electorate are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, we’re free market people. Why are we setting up a drug cartel?'”
The Parson administration’s choices of marijuana regulators also have been criticized for their political and industry connections. House lawmakers are looking into why Parson tapped former Republican state Rep. Lyndall Fraker — who has no prior medical experience — to head the medical marijuana unit. His administration then brought on Amy Moore as Fraker’s deputy, after she served in various roles at the Missouri Public Service Commission. Moore’s husband is a lawyer who serves cannabis industry clients, which has drawn questions from lawmakers.
A spokesperson for Parson declined to answer specific questions, but said the governor played no role in the licensing of marijuana businesses.
Then there is the role of Steve Tilley.
Everyone from state lawmakers to the FBI are investigating the lobbyist and former state legislator’s role in the medical marijuana licensing process. Tilley has been under FBI scrutiny for months for his involvement in the program, The Kansas City Star reported. House committee members investigating the program also requested records involving Tilley and key officials in the governor’s office.
Tilley and Parson served together in the Missouri state House from 2005 to 2011 and Parson, who went on to serve in the state Senate, was one of Tilley’s first clients when he became a political consultant and lobbyist in 2012.
Tilley has raised a substantial amount of money for Parson’s gubernatorial campaign — much of it from his lobbying clients, including those in the marijuana industry. Last May, just as officials were finalizing rules for the program, Tilley hosted a pricey fundraiser for Parson, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
One of Tilley’s lobbying clients is MoCannTrade, a cannabis industry trade group whose members won dozens of cannabis business licenses. A spokesperson for the organization said that most of its members had more unsuccessful applications than successful ones, if they were successful at all. When asked how many of its members won at least one license, he said that there were 2,300 applications and that “we have no way of knowing exactly how many of those were filed by our members.”
Another client, BeLeaf, was one of two companies that settled early with DHSS in its appeals over licensing decisions. Now, as other companies face a potentially yearslong appeals process, BeLeaf has become one of the first companies in the state to start cultivating cannabis this summer. BeLeaf President Kevin Riggs said that the company did not hire Tilley as a lobbyist until after it was awarded licenses, adding that Tilley was not involved in its administrative appeal. The reason BeLeaf’s appeal was settled so fast was because it was a more straightforward request compared to other, more complicated appeals, he explained.
Tilley’s other clients include Bootheel CannaCare and Kindbio, which each won multiple types of cannabis licenses. Another client, Herbal Health, was denied licenses.
The public corruption and fraud division of the office of Galloway — the auditor who is running against Parson — reviewed two whistleblower complaints about the application process, referring them to law enforcement. The office declined to comment further, citing whistleblower protection laws.
Galloway’s campaign has been taking aim at Tilley, publishing a memo earlier this year with the subject line: Governor Tilley?
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and the relationship between Tilley and Parson is leaving a lot of smoldering ash around the capitol as the interests of Missouri’s families get snuffed out,” the memo read.
During a town hall event held by the Missouri Patients Alliance — a group largely made up of businesses that lost out on licenses — Galloway hit the Parson administration for benefiting “well-contrived insiders” at the expense of “working families.”
“It looks an awful lot that the well-connected got what they wanted from this program,” she said during the event.
But Galloway has been steadily closing in on Parson in the polls. A Remington Research Group poll in March showed Parson with a 13-point lead over Galloway. More recently, an SLU/YouGov poll found that Parson only has a two-point lead.
The focus of the race so far is the coronavirus crisis. Parson is trying to reassure Missourians as case counts hit new highs, while defending his decision not to wear a mask. The state has confirmed more than 37,000 cases so far, seeing a 3.1 percent jump in the past week.
But if cronyism becomes a key campaign issue — as Galloway clearly hopes it will — the controversies surrounding the medical marijuana program will impact the race, Wolff, the former Supreme Court justice, said.
“[Galloway] has a very good record as the state auditor in ferreting out corruption [and] insider deals,” Wolff said. “When you have insider deals or the appearance of insider deals going on with medical marijuana licensing, that can [contribute to] a bad perception with the governor.”