Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido engaged in a quid pro quo when he asked a pot shop entrepreneur for thousands of dollars in contributions to a political action committee that opposed his city council adversaries, according to an eyewitness to the conversation.
Doug Lanphere, a medical marijuana advocate and business owner, said he attended a meeting late last October -- just days before the fall election -- that included Pulido, former local Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro, and Aaron Herzberg, a businessman who won the right to apply for multiple pot shop permits in the city’s medical marijuana lottery.
Lanphere contends that during the meeting Pulido proposed the following deal: Herzberg would make contributions to the California Homeowners Association political action committee – which spent money on mailers against his opponents on council -- in exchange for Pulido appointing him to a proposed marijuana task force that could influence changes to the city's pot shop ordinance.
According to Lanphere, Pulido said: "You guys got money?"
Lanphere said Herzberg replied: "Of course we have money."
Then, according to Lanphere, Pulido said he would make sure there would be a position on the task force for campaign contributors. At that point, Herzberg wrote a check to the PAC and handed it to Pulido, Lanphere said.
A Voice of OC review of campaign finance records for the California Homeowners Association PAC found $10,000 in campaign contributions from Herzberg to the committee and reported as received on Oct. 30.
The review also found a $5,000 contribution from Green Oregon Enterprises Inc., which is owned by Lanphere, to the PAC on the same date.
The PAC ended up spending over $17,000 on mailers opposing the reelection of council members Michele Martinez and David Benavides, who have been Pulido's chief rivals on council in recent years.
After Voice of OC discovered the contribution from Lanphere, a reporter asked him whether he also engaged in a “quid pro quo” and made the contribution at Pulido’s behest in exchange for a seat on the proposed task force.
“I’m not comfortable disclosing that,” Lanphere replied.
Pulido did not return a call seeking comment on the meeting.
A Different Story
Herzberg confirmed the meeting with Pulido, Lanphere and Barbaro, but said Lanphere has the wrong idea about what happened. According to Herzberg, the meeting was setup to discuss Measure BB, a voter approved ordinance that allows some medical marijuana stores to operate in the city. He pointed out that an activist with Americans for Safe Access attended the meeting via Skype.
"I understood he was very supportive with medical marijuana in Santa Ana, and he was seeking to have Santa Ana be a model to other cities to have medical marijuana regulated,” Herzberg said.
Herzberg did ask to be appointed to a task force to amend the measure, and the mayor said he would bring Herzberg up if he could get a task force implemented. But it was not part of a “quid pro quo,” Herzberg said.
He also said he never gave a check to Pulido during the meeting. Instead, Melahat Rafiei – a local Democratic Party operative and Pulido ally who also attended the meeting -- solicited the contribution from Herzberg and that Adam Probolsky -- a prominent figure in the local Republican party -- would be picking up the contribution, he said.
Rafiei also is connected to medical marijuana in Santa Ana. She’s listed by the California Secretary of State as the agent of service for Menmee Inc., which won a spot to sell marijuana under the city’s lottery.
Probolsky, who is Herzberg’s neighbor, came by within the next two days to pick up the check, Herzberg said.
“My experience with Miguel Pulido is he acted appropriately. There has never been any kind of promise, or any kind of favor in exchange for a political contribution," Herzberg said. He added that he has made contributions to other politicians and PACs in the past, and understands that no favors can be promised in exchange.
When asked about the check, Probolsky, who has reportedly done work for the PAC, denied having anything to do with the PAC or Herzberg’s contributions.
“I don’t know anything about that at all,” Probolsky said. “I don’t have anything to do with that sort of thing.”
In addition to the conflicting accounts of the meeting from Lanphere and Herzberg, the extent of Barbaro's involvement is also a point of contention.
Lanphere said Barbaro had been seen making the rounds at dispensaries, and was seen specifically at the now shuttered Aloha Community Collective.
Barbaro walked into the shop, told employees that he was the mayor’s “point-man” on Measure BB, so they’d “better treat him right and [Barbaro] would put in the right word for them,” according to Lanphere.
Barbaro then purchased some marijuana from the store, Lanphere said. Weeks later he and Herzberg were in Barbaro’s office with Pulido to discuss Measure BB.
Lanphere didn’t witness Barbaro’s interaction at the Aloha Community Collective, but said one of the store’s owners told him about the incident and circulated a copy of Barbaro’s drivers license – which Lanphere also provided to Voice of OC -- as evidence that Barbaro was indeed in the store.
Lanphere's statements regarding Barbaro are backed up by an email that was sent by one of the store’s employees about a campaign of “major harassment” suffered by the collective’s workers at the hands of Santa Ana officials. The email, obtained by Voice of OC, also referenced “Pulidos(sic) lawyer” coming by the store to “lightly discuss the future of dispensaries.”
Barbaro acknowledged occasionally dropping by the pot shop to purchase marijuana with a doctor’s permission – he says he suffers from rheumatoid arthritis – and even discussing Measure BB at the shop. But he said he never represented himself as an agent for Pulido, and has never been the mayor’s lawyer.
“I have no recollection of ever talking about me being a point-man or anything like that,” Barbaro said.
Barbaro said he recalls some kind of meeting taking place in a conference room at his office, but also said he doesn’t remember who was there and only momentarily peeked in.
He denies ever seeing Pulido ask for a quid pro quo and said that wouldn’t be the mayor’s “signature.” Pulido and Barbaro have been close friends for many years.
“This is unadulterated bullshit,” Barbaro said. “I can’t believe that there was money changing hands, I can’t believe Miguel would promise seats on a task force.... I’ve been really close to Miguel for years and years and I’ve never seen him trade or promise or anything like that.”
He also said he’s never heard of the California Homeowners Association PAC. However, the California Homeowners Association PAC in the past has had dealings with a PAC controlled by Barbaro. In 2012, it donated $11,000 to Barbaro’s Orange County Victory Fund.
Barbaro suggested that the whole controversy was generated by “sour grapes,” people who didn’t win permits under the lottery.
This episode comes as a federal lawsuit filed this week alleges that Pulido and other city officials received cash and gifts from pot shops while also helping to direct a police campaign to shut down the stores’ competitors.
That suit, filed by attorney Matthew Pappas, joins several other lawsuits aimed at overturning Measure BB, which is currently barred from implementation under a temporary restraining order.
The city held a lottery in February that attracted hundreds of applications, awarding 20 collectives the right to apply for operating permits. Pappas claims the lottery was “utterly corrupt” and denied his client, Sky High Collective, due process.
Pulido told the Orange County Register that the allegations in the lawsuit were "unequivocally and categorically false."
Lanphere, who supported a competing measure to allow medical marijuana that failed to pass, said he never applied for the lottery because it became clear Santa Ana wasn’t business friendly.
Ultimately, the task force that was the subject of the alleged quid pro quo never panned out. And it’s unclear what, if any, efforts Pulido made to form the task force. Lanphere said it never materialized because the city attorney and city manager recommended against making any changes to the ordinance.
However, Councilman Sal Tinajero said in an interview before Pappas’ lawsuit was filed that the council decided to implement a random lottery after rumors began spreading that Pulido was promising medical marijuana dispensaries help with securing locations to setup shop. It was also a reason why Tinajero and Councilman Vincent Sarmiento held a press conference to announce the lottery, Tinajero said.
“There were rumors that the mayor might be promising medical marijuana companies a site to dispense," Tinajero said. "We didn’t want people to be misled, so we wanted to be perfectly clear that neither the mayor nor the Santa Ana City Council had any influence in the process.”
Herzberg said Pulido seemed “genuinely enthusiastic” in making Santa Ana more progressive on medical marijuana and most of the discussion centered around amending the ordinance to "keep out the bad actors."
However, Pulido later informed Herzberg, in a message passed via Rafiei, that Pulido couldn't convince his colleagues to form the task force.
“It turned out the mayor was not able to form that task force because he had no support,” Herzberg said.