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A cautionary tale of cannabis and corruption
Kristina Hacker

I hope that Turlock doesn’t turn into Fall River, Massachusetts.

The New England town that is about the same size as Turlock recently made national news when its mayor, just 11 days after being arrested for the second time in one year, won a spot on the November general election ballot.

According to a USA Today story, Mayor Jasiel Correia II was arrested Sept. 6 on new federal extortion charges for allegedly operating a scheme to help marijuana vendors get approval to operate in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Prosecutors say he agreed to sign non-opposition letters in return for six-figure payments from four marijuana vendors looking to open businesses in his city.

He also is accused of extorting $3,900 in cash and a $7,500-to-$12,000 "Batman" Rolex watch from a property owner in exchange for activating the water supply to his building. In addition, federal prosecutors say Correia demanded his chief of staff give him half of her $78,700 salary in return for appointing her and allowing her to keep her city job.

You would think that the fine residents of Fall River would shy away from a public servant so obviously on the take — not so. A few months ago, Correia beat a recall effort, or rather, he was recalled, but the recall ballot has a second part allowing him to run again, and he remained mayor by beating several other challengers, getting about 35 percent of the vote.

I’m not implying that Turlock Mayor Amy Bublak is part of any shady business with marijuana dispensary owners hoping to be awarded a license through the City’s new Cannabis Pilot Program. In fact, Mayor Bublak has made a point to vote against all cannabis related actions due to her belief that it should be banned in Turlock as long as it remains illegal at the federal level.

However, the raid last week of a Turlock warehouse that was being used for an illegal cannabis growing operation has wound up the rumor mill with accusations flying around about exactly who knew what was happening at 680 D Street.

The raid resulted in the arrest of five individuals and the confiscation of more than 4,000 marijuana plants in a warehouse owned in part by former Congressman Jeff Denham.

The warehouse that was raided was listed as the site of a potential cannabis grow operation in an application submitted to the City of Turlock by Kings Happy Farm. A development agreement between the City and Kings Happy Farm, owned by Tommy Tran of Sacramento, was supposed to be considered by the Turlock Planning Commission at their Sept. 19 meeting.

Kings Happy Farm applied for a commercial cannabis adult-use cultivation permit with the City and submitted a lease agreement for the property at 680 D St., as the future site of the grow operation.

The property at 680 D St. is owned by a limited liability company of the same name as the address. The listed members of the LLC are Michael Hutchings and Cheryl Woodring of Salinas, along with former Congressman Denham.

Turlock City Attorney Doug White said that it was very unusual to have folks applying for a legal license through the Pilot Cannabis Program to be operating an illegal operation.

White said that Kings Happy Farm was at the beginning of the application process and had not yet undergone background checks. The City will also inspect the sites of all potential cannabis businesses, White said, but not until the applicants go through the Conditional Use Permit process.

How exactly did Kings Happy Farm plan on hiding 4,000 marijuana plants before the City inspection? Who knew what was going on at the warehouse and when did they know it? Hopefully, more details will come out during the legal proceedings of those arrested.

Legal cannabis sales in California is a $2.5 billion business. Retail sales combined with cultivation, distribution, manufacturing and other facets of the cannabis industry is expected to generate anywhere from $3 million to $5 million annually for the City of Turlock through development agreements with each cannabis business given a license to operate in town.

When the City asked for interested businesses to submit qualifications for a potential retail cannabis operator license, 31 responded. That’s 31 businesses competing for only four licenses.

The City released a statement saying the overwhelming response would ensure a competitive process with only the best of the best coming out on top. It also begs the question of how far would these businesses go to obtain a license?

While bribes at City Hall sounds like a reporter’s dream, as a resident of Turlock, I truly hope that our elected officials and public servants are proven to be above the corruption that has ensnared many a politician when big business comes to town.