Ohioans trying to crack into the new medical marijuana industry raised $57,870 for Republican Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s campaign for attorney general at the same time Yost was auditing the state’s marijuana program, records show.
“It certainly raises questions about the appearance of: Is there a quid pro quo going on here? Are these contributors giving money in the hopes of an outcome of an audit that is favorable to their personal interests? And will the auditor be affected by those contributions in how the audit is conducted?” said Erin Chlopak, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center and a former official with the Federal Elections Commission.
Yost campaign spokesperson Carlo LoParo strongly disagreed, saying none of the audit findings have been disputed and problems identified were corrected by state regulators.
“There has never been a hint of impropriety regarding the audit team’s work or findings,” he said.
Cincinnati-area businessman James Gould, who hosted the April 10 campaign fundraiser along with his sister Barbara Gould, said there was no connection between the audit and the fundraiser.
James Gould, whose company did not win a medical marijuana cultivator license from the state, said he believes Yost would be a good attorney general.
“I will always back people who are honest and do the job they were elected to do. I got nothing from it (the fundraiser),” he said.
It was the largest single fundraiser for Yost so far this year.
Barbara Gould footed the $3,420 bill for catering, wait staff and parking while James Gould contributed $12,500 and Thomas “Tony” George of Cleveland wrote a check for $12,000, according to state campaign finance records. Christopher Colwell, a Cincinnati-based lobbyist and political consultant, donated $500, records show.
The Goulds, Colwell and George’s son, Bobby George, backed the 2015 statewide vote to legalize marijuana.
In 2017, the Goulds and Bobby George each applied for large scale cultivator licenses, but their applications were disqualified by the Ohio Department of Commerce.
Subsequently, their businesses were granted medical marijuana dispensary licenses by the Ohio Board of Pharmacy in June. Gould is awaiting word from the commerce department on his application for a processor license.
When the Goulds and their business partners lost out on a grower’s license, James Gould criticized state regulators, filed a lawsuit and vowed to put another marijuana legalization issue on the statewide ballot.
They found an ally in Yost, who late last year called for a review and then later opened an audit. By February, Yost outlined early findings to Ohio Department of Commerce Director Jacqueline Williams.
“Director Williams wrote Auditor Yost and asked if the program should be restarted in light of his initial findings. Yost replied that he would not substitute his judgment for that of Director Williams, and the audit was performed to improve the department’s process not derail it,” LoParo said.
By the time Yost’s final audit came out in September, Gould said he had already dropped his lawsuit and decided to move on.
The state audit faulted regulators for scoring errors and process weaknesses that opened the door to manipulation. He said in the report that the state issued too many cultivator licenses.
“The Department didn’t do a very good job launching this program,” Yost said in a written statement. “It did not exercise due diligence to make sure Ohioans could have complete confidence in the process. The Department’s work was sloppy. Ohioans deserved better.”
The state Democratic party was critical of Yost.
“After the ECOT scandal, it’s amazing that Dave Yost has once again been caught raising big money from an industry at the very time that he’s performing audits that directly impact that industry. This is everything that’s wrong with Columbus, and one more example of why Ohioans can’t trust Yost to do the right thing by them,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper.
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