ICYMI: Cloud of Suspicion Darkens Over Parson’s Ties to Jefferson City Insider Steve Tilley
“It was a rigged game from the beginning”
GOP Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s re-election campaign has been overshadowed by investigations into his administration’s rampant corruption.
First, the FBI questioned one of his closest advisors regarding multi-million dollar contracts. Then, members of his own party demanded an investigation into Parson’s inner circle surrounding decisions made on the state’s medical marijuana program. As the general election nears, revelations surrounding Parson’s corrupt administration just keep on coming.
The Kansas City Star dug deeper into the Parson administration’s relationship with medical marijuana lobbyist Steve Tilley, Parson’s long-time friend and adviser. While other Missourians tried and failed to navigate the complex application process for a medical marijuana license, Tilley received special treatment for over a dozen clients involved in the medical marijuana industry.
This isn’t the first time Parson’s relationship with Tilley has been the subject of scrutiny. For years, Missourians have been questioning Parson’s close relationship with Tilley and why Tilley’s client list has more than tripled since Parson became governor.
Read more about Parson’s questionable relationship with Tilley below:
Kansas City Star: Lobbyist under FBI scrutiny had regular contact with Missouri medical marijuana leaders
Hundreds of pages of emails obtained by The Star show Tilley in direct contact with Fraker and other state regulators throughout the months they were setting up the medical marijuana program, writing its rules and accepting applications.
In some cases he was simply passing along information. In others, he was asking specific questions — or making specific suggestions — about rules and regulations that would dictate who got a lucrative marijuana license.
Occasionally he was voicing concerns about department decisions, or setting up in-person meetings.
And each time, he got quick responses to his inquiries.
In interviews with The Star, applicants say the emails paint a picture of Tilley getting access few could have imagined as they were navigating the application process.
The emails don’t appear to represent illegal activity, they contend, but do raise ethical concerns about whether this level of access was a major advantage when thousands of applications were being filed for only 340 licenses.
“No regular applicant had any chance of having that kind of access,” said Leisa Stevens, whose application to open a marijuana cultivation facility near Kansas City International Airport was denied. Tilley’s emails were provided to Stevens as part of an open records request she filed in January, and she shared them with The Star.
Kansas City Attorney Christopher McHugh said his experience was that the state pushed away questions from applicants to an online FAQ page to ensure everyone had equal access to information.
Officials were very careful not to answer questions or communicate about specific applications, he said, so as to ensure a level playing field for all.
Nathaniel Ruby, a Kansas City applicant who received licenses for five dispensaries and one for cultivation, said he submitted “generic questions” to the department about ownership forms because he thought the language was confusing.
The Missouri House launched an investigation into the marijuana program in February, with lawmakers questioning whether alleged conflicts of interest may have tainted the entire process. A House oversight committee asked for a trove of records last month documenting interactions with industry insiders and detailing how key decisions were made.
Additionally, the state auditor’s office says over the last year it has received two whistleblower complaints specific to the operations and the application process of the medical marijuana program. The complaints were reviewed and then referred to law enforcement.
Tilley’s involvement with the industry has drawn particular scrutiny, in part because of his relationship with the governor, who served with Tilley in the legislature and for whom Tilley helped raise more than $1 million last year.
He has more than a dozen clients who are involved in some way in the medical marijuana industry. That includes the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association, an industry group whose members have been awarded numerous licenses to grow, transport and sell marijuana.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that Tilley has been under FBI scrutiny for months — with questions ranging from his involvement in the medical marijuana industry to his connection to controversial utility contracts in Independence.
Weeks after voters approved medical marijuana in Missouri in November 2018, emails show Tilley had a face-to-face meeting with the leaders of the department of health and senior services.
Emails and meetings between Tilley, Fraker and his top deputy, Amy Moore, continued as the department began drafting the rules that would both govern the program and make up the application that determines who would win a license.
The rules for the program were finalized in early June. A few days before, Tilley emailed Fraker asking if the department would confirm it “would not have any issues” with the business plan of one of his clients. Fraker responded that the arrangement “should be acceptable.”
Communication between Tilley and department leadership continued throughout July and August, when the state began accepting applications for medical marijuana licenses.
At different times during the program formation and application process, Cox said the department placed communication restrictions on certain staff.
Long before Richard Rodriguez began compiling his application for a St. Louis marijuana dispensary, he began hearing rumors about Tilley’s involvement in the industry.
“People kept bringing up Steve Tilley’s name,” he said. “People were hearing about this. This wasn’t some kind of a secret.”
Rodgriguez was denied a license by the state, a decision he is now appealing. But he said the apparent influence Tilley had has soured him on the entire process.
“I just think the jig was up from the get go,” he said. “It wasn’t on the up and up. I was so stupidly naive. I’m mad at myself and I’m ashamed at myself that I would be so stupid and spend all our money. It was a rigged game from the beginning.”
The emails don’t necessarily show anything illegal occurred, but like other moves the state has made, they add to the questions about the way Missouri has rolled out its marijuana program, said Josh Hardin, a partner in Prairie Land Farms and a Kansas City attorney.
“Everything may have been totally justified,” he said. “But it’s really the lack of transparency in this thing. And when you have a lack of transparency, it breeds suspicion.”