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Are The Feds Investigating The Cannabis Control Commission?

No one really knows, adding more wind to the storm around suspended CCC Chair Shannon O’Brien

If there’s one thing that the drama stemming from the ongoing suspension of Cannabis Control Commission Chair Shannon O’Brien by appointing state Treasurer Deb Goldberg hardly needed, it was more characters and plotlines.

Goldberg put O’Brien on ice last September, for what were at the time reasons that had not come to light. But that was just the first act of what has since become a circus.

The situation caught fire again this week in the wake of the Boston Globe reporting that “Federal prosecutors sought records linked to [the] suspended cannabis regulator as part of grand jury probe.” Since this is serious stuff, as grand jury business is supposed to be kept under wraps, I’ll quote the Globe directly:

Federal prosecutors have sought a trove of records tied to Shannon O’Brien, including the top cannabis regulator’s personnel file and the contents of her email account, saying the requests were part of a grand jury investigation, according to a copy of a federal subpoena obtained by the Globe.

The subpoena that the office of the US attorney for Massachusetts sent to state officials last fall does not specify who is the target of the investigation, nor did it disclose the scope of the probe.

An Oct. 10 letter that accompanied the subpoena said that a federal grand jury is investigating “suspected violations of federal criminal law.” The letter — sent by Dustin Chao, head of the office’s public corruption unit — did not specify what those violations might be. The Globe does not know if other subpoenas related to the same investigation have been issued.

As for whether there is actually some kind of real investigation underway, no one seems to know. Prosecutors have a policy of not commenting on such delicate matters, while an attorney for O’Brien told the Globe they “had ‘no knowledge’ of any federal investigation, ‘much less are they aware that Chair O’Brien is a target of any investigation.’” O’Brien’s spokesperson said, “If there was an ongoing investigation, we would have heard of it by now.”

Apparently, the subpoena was related to O’Brien’s ties to a cultivation in Greenfield. The chair was listed as an owner in the company’s licensing application when she first came to work at the commission, but a subsequent internal investigation cleared her in the matter. Reached for comment, officials from that business scored the quotation of the day, telling reporter Matt Stout that they, “too, had not been contacted ‘by anyone other than The Boston Globe about this.’”

Before yesterday’s bombshell, the only update to the O’Brien saga was that her hearing with Goldberg to determine her fate at the CCC was kicked down the road yet again. O’Brien was initially supposed to have her proverbial day in Suffolk County Superior Court last fall. But after the treasurer agreed to hear the chair out in a less formal setting, that date was called off. In its place, Goldberg was scheduled to meet with O’Brien in early November. 

That gathering got pushed back to Dec. 5, but in bickering through various news outlets, it became clear that they were not heading toward agreement. The State House News Service noted that “while O’Brien seems to think the sit-down will be a public hearing … Goldberg’s office has more frequently referred to the huddle with O’Brien as a meeting and has said details on the format are not available.”

The Globe has plumbed this story hard from the beginning. Last December, the paper of record reported allegations of O’Brien making “racially, ethnically, [and] culturally insensitive statements,” at least one in reference to “a person of Asian heritage,” which surfaced in subsequent court filings (the complaints were first reported by blogger Grant Smith Ellis months ago). Those documents also illuminated the tension that was palpable during commission meetings between O’Brien and Commissioner Nurys Camargo, acknowledging an exchange between the two in which the former reportedly implied that her colleague must know state Sen. Lydia Edwards because they are both people of color.

It’s an absurd amount of legal back-and-forth to process, as well as quite repetitive, but a great deal of the disagreement appears to be rooted in two different CCC probes into the ousted chair’s work behavior. O’Brien has charged that Goldberg, a former ally, unlawfully removed O’Brien from her position, saying she was booted “without notice, without articulated reason, and without any opportunity to be heard, all of which is required by [Massachusetts law].” Goldberg says those reasons are laid out in reports stemming from the dual impugnments, only one of which had been shared with O’Brien as of Tuesday. As State House News Service reporter Colin Young wrote in an update

The results of a second investigation into the conduct of suspended Cannabis Control Commission chairwoman Shannon O’Brien are in and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg was preparing to share them with O’Brien — along with a proposed February date for the meeting that could lead to the chairwoman’s firing — when O’Brien appealed a lower court ruling to the state Appeals Court.

Assistant Attorney General John Hitt, who has been representing Goldberg in the legal saga that stems from Goldberg’s suspension of O’Brien, said in a new filing Monday that Goldberg “was in the process of preparing to deliver the report to [O’Brien] along with an amended notice letter setting forth, among other things, the date for a meeting in February 2024” but that the delivery “has now been delayed” because of O’Brien’s latest appeal.

A Superior Court judge in December rejected process guardrails that O’Brien sought and ruled that Goldberg could go ahead with the meeting that could lead to O’Brien’s firing under certain circumstances, including that O’Brien be informed of the results of an investigation into her conduct towards former CCC executive director Shawn Collins, a one-time Goldberg lieutenant.

And on it goes.