Maryland gubernatorial candidate's financial connections pose conflict problems

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore, here at a forum in March for Maryland candidates for governor to discuss their views on climate change, has connections with the cannabis industry that could present a conflict of interest if he is elected governor. (Christine Zhu/University of Maryland) Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore, here at a forum in March for Maryland candidates for governor to discuss their views on climate change, has connections with the cannabis industry that could present a conflict of interest if he is elected governor. (Christine Zhu/University of Maryland)

ANNAPOLIS (April 29, 2022)—Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore has a cannabis conundrum.

In 2018, Moore was awarded more than $1.6 million in stocks in a marijuana company that does extensive business in Maryland and served on its board while a candidate. His connection to Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries (GTI), one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, represents a possible conflict of interest if he becomes governor as the office appoints the commission overseeing the state's medical marijuana industry.

Green Thumb Industries, which employs 3,800 people and has 75 retail locations across 15 U.S. markets, holds processing and cultivation licenses for a medical cannabis company in Centreville and dispensary licenses for facilities in Bethesda, Silver Spring and Joppa, according to the company's 2021 Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.

Two of the dispensary licenses and the processing license are up for renewal in 2023, when a new administration will take over in Annapolis.

Moore's cannabis connection shines a spotlight on a dilemma for a unique candidate, one with sprawling financial interests consisting of significant holdings in many private companies. His marijuana holdings, while a small part of his overall assets, are just one illustration of how his portfolio could put him at odds with the administrative duties of being governor.

The state's ethics law states that "In most instances, an official or employee may not have a financial interest in or be employed by an entity having or negotiating a contract with the agency with which he or she is affiliated."

Financially, Moore is an outlier.

Capital News Service reviewed the ethics filings and financial disclosures of the leading Democratic candidates for governor and found that while some have holdings in individual companies, none of them has a portfolio matching Moore's for size and range, and few invest in individual companies. Most of their holdings consist of personal property and investment or retirement funds that contain a mixture of assets.

Moore, meanwhile, owns thousands of shares amounting to millions of dollars in dozens of companies across different industries, including pharmaceutical, technology, beauty and retail giants.

Additionally, he holds part ownership in several businesses. Moore's business interests put him in a position where, as governor, he might be called upon to regulate or contract with businesses in which he also has a financial interest, a clear conflict of interest.

John Pelissero, a senior scholar in government at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said it is important for candidates running for executive office to rid themselves of any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Candidates can achieve that by either divesting the assets or placing them in a blind trust managed by an independent third party with no consultation with the candidate, said Pelissero, who is also a professor emeritus of political science at Loyola University Chicago.

"Understandably, they've been in the private sector where they've raised money and income from these kinds of holdings, all of which is perfectly legal and above board," he said. "But what you want to do in public office, as a governor, for example, is to assure the public that the public interest is what is first and foremost in your mind.

"Unlike a state legislator, who might also have holdings like this, they could just recuse themselves from voting on or participating in discussions about regulation of the cannabis industry. But an executive can't do that. An executive has to make decisions."

If elected governor, Moore would appoint 15 members of the 16-member Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission to four-year terms. The commission licenses medical marijuana growers, processors and dispensaries in the state.

The governor's role in regulating the industry is expected to grow if adult recreational use of cannabis is approved as expected by voters in November.

Moore's campaign declined to discuss any possible conflict inherent in his association with GTI or confirm that he still owned stock in the company or any other entity in the marijuana industry in the state.

But in response to questions about Moore's ties to the company, his campaign said in a statement that his financial assets would be placed in a blind trust if the best-selling author, Army veteran and former nonprofit CEO were elected.

"The Moore-Miller administration will fight for what is solely in the best interest of Maryland families," the statement said.

Moore was appointed to Green Thumb Industries' board in 2018, one of the few Black people in the nation in such a position, and was given more than $1.6 million in stock awards. The company also gave him $25,000 in cash, according to the company's SEC filings.

Last year, Moore acquired at least another 1,000 shares in the company, valued at over $100,000, according to his state ethics filing. He resigned from the board in March.

Individuals currently and formerly with the company donated tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Moore and his running mate, Aruna Miller.

Current GTI officials, including the CEO and three board members, contributed $17,000 combined to Moore's campaign, according to its annual fundraising report.

Co-founder and former CEO Peter Kadens contributed $6,000 each to Moore and Miller and made a $50,000 contribution to Moore's super PAC, Opportunity Maryland PAC.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who will leave office in 2023 because of term limits, entered the governorship after running a successful real estate business. His financial assets are managed by a trust, but not a blind trust, through an agreement with the state's Ethics Commission.

Three other leading Democratic campaigns said either they did not have any financial holdings that would constitute conflicts of interest or that they would take action to eliminate potential conflicts of interest.

Comptroller Peter Franchot's press secretary, Jordan Bellamy, said in a statement Franchot did not "have any assets that present a conflict of interest."

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez said in a statement he would take "action to eliminate conflicts of interest that arise at any point."

The campaign of former U.S. Secretary of Education John King said he would take appropriate steps to avoid financial conflicts.

"John King … does not have any financial dealings that would pose a conflict of interest if elected," Communications Director Maryam Ahmed said in a statement. "Should any of his retirement accounts or college savings accounts ever become a conflict of interest, he would, of course, take the necessary steps to address that, such as placing them in a blind trust."

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