Former House Speaker takes plea in medical pot licensing bribery case

Former Michigan Medical Marihuana Licensing Board chair Rick Johnson is pleading guilty to federal bribery charges. He served on the board between May 2017 and April 2019.

Prosecutors alleged he used his position to provide insider information to three other defendants and help them with licensing applications.

In charging documents, prosecutors allege Johnson received over $100,000 worth of cash bribes and other benefits.

He “failed to disclose to the State of Michigan the conflict of interest and ex parte communications between [Johnson] and applicants for medical marijuana licenses, and, to conceal corrupt payments,” the document reads.

Johnson came to the board directly from the lobbying industry, causing concerns dating back to when then-Governor Rick Snyder appointed him to the post. Before that, Johnson, a Republican, served as Michigan House Speaker from 2001 through 2004.

Mark Totten is the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan. He said the investigation into Johnson has been ongoing since at least December 2017.

“It has included the execution of multiple search warrants, the review of significant amounts of evidence, looking over a lot of digital evidence,” Totten told reporters Thursday at a press conference outside the federal building in Lansing.

Also charged in connection with the Johnson case are Michigan businessman John Dawood Dalaly, and lobbyists Brian Pierce and Vincent Brown. All three have taken plea deals.

Dalaly, is charged with providing roughly $68,200 in bribes to Johnson. The crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine.

Pierce and Brown face conspiracy to commit bribery charges. That’s a five-year felony, also with a maximum $250,000 fine.

Totten said he can’t say yet if authorities are expecting more charges.

“We will continue to investigate, and it really will depend on wherever the facts take us. There’s not much I can say at this point except that the people I have named today as defendants are cooperating and we will continue to see where the evidence leads,” Totten said.

As part of Johnson’s plea, he’s agreed to forfeit the entire $110,200 he received. But it’s unclear yet whether he or the others will receive jail time.

Totten told media the four men are fully cooperating with FBI investigators in the matter. As such, his office is not currently seeking their detainment ahead of their plea hearings in the coming weeks.

“There is not formally a conviction until that plea hearing when the judge determines and accepts those pleas and obviously at this point those remain, despite the plea agreements, they’re allegations until the judge renders that decision,” Totten said.

During Thursday’s press conference, Totten didn’t want to speculate on the broader ramifications of the alleged bribery scheme on Michigan’s marijuana industry.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer abolished the Medical Marihuana Licensing Board in 2019. Currently, the Cannabis Regulatory Agency oversees both the medical and recreational side of cannabis in the state.

When asked for a comment, the agency provided the following written statement from CRA executive director Brian Hanna:

“As has been clearly seen in my first six months on the job, we don’t take illegal activity lightly here at the CRA. We are currently reviewing the information that has been made available today and will begin investigations as warranted. Marijuana industry stakeholders in Michigan can be assured that if we find that any businesses broke the law or rules, disciplinary action will be pursued.”

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