MA: Questions Raised In Council’s Marijuana Dispensary Vote

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Most of the 13 members of the Boston City Council who voted in favor of an Allston medical marijuana dispensary were former consulting clients of a businessman lobbying for the company, raising questions about the influences on the city’s oversight of its fledgling medical marijuana market.

The businessman, Frank Perullo, was president of Sage Systems from November 2002 until the company closed in April 2015. Eight current city councilors hired Sage to provide various types of political consulting work during that period.

Perullo’s new company, the Novus Group, was paid $71,000 this year to provide lobbying services to their client Mayflower Medicinals Inc. to assist with the company’s state and municipal applications for a registered marijuana dispensary, according to Novus Group’s filings with the state. Perullo is not a registered lobbyist, although as the company’s chief executive, he employs lobbyists to work for him.

Perullo and councilors reached by the Globe rejected suggestions that their connections played a role in the council’s June recommendation of Mayflower Medicinals to open operations in Allston. They insist the relationships did not present an appearance of conflict as defined in state law, and Perullo said his company’s lobbying work was properly disclosed.

“There is no appearance of conflict,’’ said Daniel Sibor, chief of staff to Councilor Josh Zakim, whose campaign hired Sage Systems in the past. Asked why Zakim would not directly answer questions from the Globe, Sibor said: “He didn’t really feel like it.”

But the connections between the lobbyist and the councilors, and the perception it conjures, create a shaky ground for the City Council and its attempts at transparent policy-making. The council had for years been nullified under the previous mayoral administration, but it has been given newfound authority with the advent of the medical marijuana dispensary law.

“My reaction is that the appearance of this is terrible,’’ said Gregory Sullivan, research director for the Pioneer Institute, a public policy think tank. “The Legislature and the governor established this process to instill confidence in the integrity of the process. The end product should not be the awarding of this multimillion-dollar contract to friends [of] these well-connected people.”

The issue surfaced amid a controversy in Allston over competing dispensary applicants in the neighborhood. Perullo is a close friend and political adviser to Allston councilman Mark Ciommo, who backed Mayflower Medicinals and opposed another company’s dispensary application.

Indeed, Perullo’s roots in City Hall run deep. His current business partner at Novus Group, Paul Scapicchio, was a Boston city councilor from 1997 to 2006.

The lawyer who represented Mayflower Medicinals before the Zoning Board of Appeals is former City Council president Michael Ross.

Perullo, who also does public relations for Mayflower Medicinals, said the company would not comment for this story.

State conflict-of-interest law requires that public employees file a written disclosure of a potential bias prior to acting on any matter that could create an appearance of a conflict of interest. The law’s aim is to dispel any notion that the public employee could be improperly influenced in the performance of his or her official duties as a result of that bias.

Perullo said that since 2014, Novus Group has exceeded the lobbyist disclosure requirements by reporting all its municipal lobbying efforts. The Novus Group registered with the secretary of state as a lobbyist for Mayflower Medicinals in January, records show.

“Transparency is not just a buzzword to our firm,’’ Perullo said. “It is a principle that directs our work. I am proud of the work we do on behalf of our clients every day.”

Ciommo said his support of Mayflower Medicinals was the first time in his nine years on the council that he voted on a matter that affects a client represented by Perullo. Ciommo said his decision was based on what is best for the neighborhood, and not his connections to Perullo.

And the councilor sought advice and disclosed his ties to Perullo before the Mayflower Medicinals matter was heard by the council.

“During February 2016, I sought the advice of the state Ethics Commission relative to the Mayflower application and subsequently submitted a public disclosure statement to the city clerk in March 2016 based on the commission’s advice,’’ Ciommo wrote in an e-mail response to the Globe.

In his disclosure letter to the city clerk in March, Ciommo wrote that it came to his attention that the Novus Group might soon appear before the council on behalf of a client. Ciommo said his son, Michael Ciommo, worked for Sage Systems from October 2013 to August 2014 “with many of the same employees and management as the Novus Group.”

He said his campaign committee is a client of MLM Strategies, a partner and affiliate company of the Novus Group.

None of the other councilors who were former political consulting clients of Sage Systems filed disclosure forms for their work with Perullo, the city clerk said. Those councilors are Michael Flaherty, Tito Jackson, Salvatore LaMattina, Matt O’Malley, Bill Linehan, Zakim, and Timothy McCarthy.

The state began allowing municipalities to have a say in the dispensary application process last year as part of an effort to strip the subjectivity and secrecy that officials said had tainted the system previously. Under the new rules, the City Council must provide a “letter of support or nonopposition” for an application to proceed.

The new rules gave rare authority to the council and empowered the district councilor, whose recommendations are seldom rejected by colleagues.

“It’s almost absolutely imperative that the district city councilor weighs in on every single application,’’ said Linehan, a former Sage client. “Now, have we been put in an uncomfortable position where folks can say, ‘What’s that all about?’ Yeah, we have. But we didn’t create this. These aren’t our rules. These are the state rules.”

Mayflower Medicinals was the first of three dispensary applications that the council considered so far. The council also gave its blessing to Happy Valley Ventures, which is eyeing a site in East Boston. It rejected the request of Compassionate Organics, which was also seeking to open in Allston.

Some Allston residents said Ciommo did not give Compassionate Organics a fair chance after founder Geoffrey Reilinger spent nearly three years wooing the community and Ciommo.

Mayflower Medicinals emerged as an applicant in January. By June, Ciommo urged the council to back the company, citing its expertise in the business. Before the summer was out, Mayflower Medicinals got the green light from the Zoning Board of Appeals and a nod from the state to begin building its cultivation facility.

Ciommo has said he could not support Compassionate Organics because Reilinger had flaws and misrepresentations on his application. Reilinger admitted to falsely claiming he had support from some law enforcement officials in his first application, issues he said were rectified in a later submission.

Ciommo held a hearing for Compassionate Organics last week, but the council voted unanimously not to support its application.

Mayflower Medicinals may also get another boost. The council passed an order in March that, if approved by the zoning commission, would restrict to one the number of dispensaries in a geographic area.

That order was pushed by Flaherty. Records show that from 2003 to 2011, Flaherty paid Sage Systems more than $800,000 for political consulting work.

Other councilors interviewed rejected suggestions that their past connections influenced their vote for Mayflower Medicinals. They said they ended their dealings long before the Mayflower Medicinals matter came before them. They said they backed the company based on the recommendation of the district councilor and argued that the letter of nonopposition was not the final word in the dispensary approval process. But without the letter, a dispensary applicant cannot proceed.

The councilors also contended that because they paid Sage for consulting work, there could be no conflict.

“I’ve been doing what is right for the people of Boston,” LaMattina, a former Sage client, said explaining his decision. “I can’t explain it any better than that,’’

Asked whether his past connection with Sage Systems influenced his decision, O’Malley replied: “Absolutely not.”

McCarthy said his votes are based solely on the merits of a matter presented.

“Sage was hired for the purpose of voter identification,’’ he said. “I have no relationship with the former owner, nor has anyone contacted me regarding this issue.”

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Questions Raised In Council’s Marijuana Dispensary Vote
Author: Meghan E. Irons
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Photo Credit: Suzanne Kreiter
Website: The Boston Globe