ATLANTA - Controversy continues to swirl around Georgia’s new medical marijuana bid process.
The FOX 5 I-Team examined how the state legislature mostly exempted all bids from the Georgia Open Records act, which means citizens, journalists, and bidders themselves can’t see details of the winning or even losing bids
In February of 2020, during the early days of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, newly appointed Commissioners were looking for help. Michael Mayes, CEO of Quantum 9 out of Chicago, was ready. Mayes, a medical marijuana consultant, offered to help the commission for free.
One board member, Vice-Chair Danielle Benson, wanted to make sure Mayes wasn't going to be involved in Georgia's upcoming medical marijuana bid.
"Will you be seeking a license or you just want to serve as a subject matter expert?" Benson asked.
"No, I will not be seeking a license," Mayes answered.
That statement turned out to not be true. But finding that out wasn't easy.
The I-Team has been investigating the Georgia cannabis commission's bid process and the winning companies.
The I-Team started with a Florida company called Trulieve. The company's CEO Kim Rivers is married to a man recently convicted of public corruption charges in Florida. Burnette bragged on undercover tapes about how he and a Florida legislator made "little tweaks that give you some advantage" to the Florida marijuana legislation.
Trulieve told us J.T. Burnette had no role with Truelieve Ga or its bid.
Then there was Jigar Patel of Nature's GA. Patel was once a business associate with a man in Massachusetts who admitted in court to bribing a local Massachusetts Mayor to win his medical marijuana license.
Nature's GA wrote to say it was irrelevant "because the company separated ties with that individual long before our Georgia application was submitted."
As we continued our investigation we ran into a huge hurdle. The bill that established the Cannabis Commission exempted the Commission from most all of the Georgia Open Records Act. Which means citizens, journalists, even other bidders are kept in the dark about much of the winning company's bids.
It is right there for anyone to see. Page after blacked-out page of redacted material. Some bids are virtually 100% redacted.
We asked the bill's author, State Representative Micha Gravley if it was fair to say these bids are heavily redacted and its hard to see anything at all about these companies.
"Oh, yeah," he answered.
Representative Gravley said legislators exempted the commission from public scrutiny to protect trade secrets and sensitive security issues for cash-rich companies.
We pointed out that the bids exempted other information that had nothing to do with trade secrets or security issues.
"Well, if that's the case, then yes, that information can be, that should be subject to the Open Records," Gravley said.
Representative Gravley said he wants to see how bid protests and lawsuits play out, then he will review the Open Records exemption during the next session.
"Why? Why is this licensing process any different from any other state licensing process," asked Clare Norins.
Clare Norins, is director of the University of Georgia's First Amendment Clinic. She understands the need to protect trade secrets but says Georgia has a strong Open Records law to protect the public and sees no reason to toss it out the window for the new medical marijuana industry.
"We have no ability for the voters, the taxpayers, the public to understand who is being awarded these very lucrative contracts," said Norins.
One of those winning bidders is Michael Mayes. He promised the commission he would help them at no cost, and that he had no plans to bid in 2020.
Was that true? We found Michael Mayes was listed as an owner in the heavily redacted winning bid application for Treevana Remedy.
"I remember that guy, I remember him, yes" said Jerome Lee.
Jerome Lee is the attorney for a competing medical marijuana company, Georgia Atlas. Georgia Atlas filed a federal lawsuit protesting the Georgia bid process.
Lee was at the hearing when Michael Mayes spoke, and we showed him that Mayes went on to be a part of one of the six winning bids.
"Wow. I was not aware of that. It looks real bad when you don't put that out front," said Lee.
Michael Mayes attorney wrote us to say Mayes only provided a basic packet of information to a representative of the Cannabis Commission and nothing more.
The attorney also said Mayes had no plans to submit a bid application at the time of the meeting. He says Mayes didn't start working with Treevana Remedy until 10 months after that February 2020 hearing.
We checked the application to see when Mayes joined the company. His profile and work agreement were redacted.
"The lack of transparency is problematic. Somehow we mysteriously have the highest level of redaction and secrecy of any of the prior states or any of that and that's concerning. And it shouldn't be," said Lee.
Clare Norins says Nevada and Pennsylvania both have moved to a more open process about winners of lucrative medical marijuana licenses in their respective states. She says time will tell whether Georgia decides to open up its process.
"So, we do see movements in other states towards more openness, and that's what would be appropriate, I think in this case as well, especially given Georgia's long history of having very strong Sunshine laws," said Norins.