Business & Real Estate

FBI investigating whether Sacramento pot businesses paid bribes to public officials

The FBI has been investigating whether Sacramento-area marijuana businesses have made payoffs to public officials in the region in exchange for favorable treatment and license approvals, The Sacramento Bee has learned.

Three sources with direct knowledge of FBI questioning of area marijuana business figures say the investigation began in the past few months and predates the disclosure that one of Sacramento’s major marijuana dispensary owners had ties to a Ukrainian man indicted last week along with two associates of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney.

The FBI’s Sacramento field office declined to comment Monday.

“The FBI neither confirms nor denies such an investigation,” spokeswoman Gina Swankie wrote in an email. “Who is making such a claim?”

But the investigation comes two months after the FBI announced in a podcast that it was “seeing a public corruption threat emerge in the expanding cannabis industry” and asked for any tips involving public corruption and the industry, which generates millions of dollars in revenue and involves licenses that can go for as much as $500,000.

The sources, who did not want to be identified to keep the identities of the marijuana business figures private, said agents had been seeking information about whether payments had been made to local officials seeking favorable treatment.

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The disclosure comes one day after Sacramento officials called for an immediate investigation into the city’s dispensary licensing system and how one ownership group had managed to obtain eight permits to operate dispensaries, far more than any other operators.

That call followed a report in The Sacramento Bee detailing the fact that Garib Karapetyan and his associates had accumulated licenses for eight dispensaries, and that an officer in Karapetyan’s operation is indicted Ukrainian businessman Andrey Kukushkin.

Kukushkin was indicted last week along with three other men - including Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman - in an alleged scheme to funnel foreign campaign contributions to U.S. politicians and gain entry to the marijuana businesses in Nevada and “other states,” court documents say.

Parnas and Fruman have donated to several California politicians, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Kukushkin is listed in city records as chief financial officer of Sharp Source, a corporation that operates the Twelve Hour Care dispensary on Fruitridge Road. He and Karapetyan also were listed as officers in a Sacramento company called Legacy botanical Company LLC.

Karapetyan’s Roseville attorney, Brad Hirsch, said Monday that he has instructed his clients not to speak with journalists, and that he has received numerous calls from national media outlets, including The Washington Post and the New York Times.

“I can tell you that my clients haven’t done anything different than anything any of the other (dispensary operators) have done in the city,” he said. “Everything we did was above board and done with the blessing of the city.”

Karapetyan has donated to various Sacramento politicians, including $2,000 to the 2016 campaign for Mayor Darrell Steinberg and another $1,000 from an organization which Karapetyan is listed as owning.

Steinberg spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga said Steinberg does not know Karapetyan and added that the mayor was donating the money received from him to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Sacramento “out of an abundance of caution.”

She added Monday that Steinberg has not heard anything from the FBI.

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.