Former Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson and several others have been charged in a bribery scheme related to the medical marijuana industry. Johnson, who was the chair of the Medical Marijuana Licensing Board, allegedly accepted bribes totaling at least $110,200 over a nearly two-year period from multiple sources. The bribes were paid to Johnson in exchange for information about the medical marijuana licensing system before it was made public, which would have given those who received the information an advantage in the competitive market.
The scheme involved two lobbyists, Brian Pierce and Vincent Brown, who allegedly funneled payments to Johnson through shell companies. John Dalaly, the owner of a medical marijuana company, allegedly paid more than $68,000 in cash and benefits to Johnson. The payments were made to influence and reward Johnson for providing assistance with their clients' applications for medical marijuana licenses.
In a separate instance on April 25, 2019, the final meeting of the medical marijuana board before it was disbanded, Johnson and two other panel members voted to pre-qualify JAR Capital LLC for a license. One of the investors in JAR Capital was Metro Detroit lawyer Gregory Yatooma. Then, Johnson personally emailed Gregory Yatooma on June 18, 2019, seeking a $75,000 loan to "pay off" another short-term loan from a "business associate" and to gain "funds for finishing up spring 2019 planting."
This scandal raises several concerns about the state's regulatory framework for the marijuana industry. Hundreds of applicants representing potentially thousands of Michiganders had their dreams of business ownership squashed by his actions and decisions. So this news also calls into question the legitimacy of every licensing decision made by the Board during Johnson's tenure.
The guilty pleas filed by the four defendants reveal how deeply rooted corruption was in the medical marijuana licensing board in Michigan. Johnson’s plea described how he received the payments with an understanding that "the payers were seeking information and assistance from him to help them successfully apply for state medical marijuana operating licenses and ultimately for his support for their license applications."
The consequences of corruption in the marijuana industry can be far-reaching and devastating. Just ask all the Michigan families who put their life savings into starting one of these businesses, only to have Rick Johnson and his cronies steal their opportunity. The people of Michigan have a right to expect transparency and fairness in the licensing process, and corrupt practices like those carried out by Johnson and his associates undermine public trust and confidence in the system.
Unfortunately, the damage has long since been done to the people who had their applications denied by Johnson, while those who bribed him have only become more wealthy. We can only hope that Johnson will face consequences, and hopefully jail time, for his admitted corruption.