Two employees of a Santa Ana medical marijuana collective tell the Weekly that Frank Barbaro, the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County and longtime lawyer for Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, offered to help the dispensary secure a winning slot in the city's Feb. 5 2015 lottery–if they “worked” through him.
The employees, both a manager and a budtender for the Aloha Community Collective Association, claim that Barbaro became a member of the collective sometime last year and frequently visited the dispensary to purchase marijuana and edibles. Furthermore, they claim that on repeated occasions, Barbaro, who identified himself as Mayor Pulido's personal attorney, told them that he was the “person we needed to work with” if they wanted to “secure a spot” in the city's upcoming lottery.
The Weekly reviewed evidence including Barbaro's collective membership form, which contains a photocopy of Barbaro's California driver's license. While the two employees say Barbaro didn't ask for a specific amount of cash, they say that this is because they refused to continue the conversation or in any way entertain Barbaro's offer. Instead, they informed their attorney, Christopher Glew, of Barbaro's conduct. Glew then advised them not to speak any further with Barbaro, but instead to inform the city attorney's office.
“I don't remember exactly when [Barbaro] started coming in,” said the budtender, who requested anonymity. “But I know it was before we were raided the first time and arrested,” he said. As the Weekly reported last year, city police raided Aloha and numerous other dispensaries last August, arresting dozens of people. “He would come in as a customer and introduced himself to me as Pulido's lawyer, shamelessly, like, 'I'm Mayor Pulido's lawyer.'”
After a few visits, the budtender continued, Barbaro “started saying, 'I'm going to be the guy who decides who gets to stay after the vote.' He would lightly drop it: 'Hey man, let me just tell you I am the guy you need to talk to.' It was all open ended. 'I'm the guy that fixes the problems, the guy who picks the winners in the end.'”
The budtender said he “never entertained the banter, because I know better than that. It's either entrapment or a shakedown, and it looks like a shakedown because we didn't pay and we got raided and arrested by the city.”
The budtender says he immediately brought Barbaro's statements to Aloha's manager. “I'm not stupid,” the budtender explained. “When you introduce yourself as the lawyer to the mayor of the city and you're in a business that is illegal, that doesn't make sense. That's an immediate concern. I immediately smelled a fish.”
Mike, Aloha's manager, who asked to be identified only by his first name, confirmed the budtender's account. “That guy Frank [Barbaro], he would come in weekly,” Mike recalled, adding that Barbaro repeatedly made it known that he had direct access to the mayor. “'Hey you guys are great, if you want to move forward when all this is over, talk to me,''” Mike says Barbaro often said. “He would always preach on about if you want to get a spot in the lottery you need to work with him and he would make it happen.”
Mike said that Barbaro initially seemed interested in getting some kind of discount for his alternative medicine. “At first it was like he wanted a free deal from the dispensary, but then he became more and more aggressive in bringing up his relationship and influence with Mayor Pulido. He would claim that all the time: 'As you know I am Mayor Pulido's attorney and when all this mess is over you are going to want to work for me if you want to insure a spot in Santa Ana.'”
Mike says he had been in regular contact with the Santa Ana city attorney's office at the time. “I had meetings with them and was talking to them at the time, and I said, 'This guy is coming in saying he's Pulido's attorney and trying to get a deal.' They were like, 'No comment.' Are we supposed to make a deal with him then?”
Following that conversation, Mike says he informed his attorney, Glew, who told him under no circumstances should he have any such conversation with Barbaro, much less pay him for a spot in the city's lottery. In an interview with the Weekly, Glew confirmed Mike's story and said it wasn't the first time he had heard such allegations, but in fact other dispensary operators had told him similar stories.
“I started getting clients coming in and saying, 'Hey there's some guy claiming to be Pulido's right hand man going around saying we will guarantee you a spot for x amount of money,” Glew recalled. “I advised my clients to stay away,” he added, telling them that even assuming that Barbaro was capable of making such a deal, which he doubted, that it would be illegal. Glew said he didn't believe the stories at first, but then he kept hearing the same account from different dispensaries. “First it was one client, and I dismissed it as BS, then two, then three, then everyone had been approached in one shape or form.”
Glew said he figured Mayor Pulido should be made aware of what was happening. “I called the city attorney's office and said, 'Look, you need to know there are some people running around,' and their approach was, 'We don't know anything about it; tell him, don't tell us.'”
As the Weekly previously reported on Monday, attorney Matt Pappas filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Mayor Pulido had solicited cash payments from Santa Ana dispensaries to pay for Measure BB, which defeated a grassroots legalization initiative, Measure CC, in a November 2014 election. The lawsuit also claims Pulido solicited cash from dispensaries in return for guarantees of winning lottery spots. At a press conference Monday, Pappas reiterated those claims, and denounced police tactics during a recent raid of the Skyhigh Holistic Collective in which officers were caught on tape insulting Marla James, a wheelchair-bound amputee, and apparently eating pot edibles confiscated from the club.
On Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge David R. Chaffee will hold a hearing on a separate lawsuit seeking to block the city from implementing Measure BB. Meanwhile, no licenses have been granted by the city to dispensary operators that won the lottery.
Mike, the Aloha manager, says he was dismayed at Barbaro's conduct, especially after the city raided his collective and 23 others in August 2014, arresting 68 people for violating the city's anti-marijuana code. The raid occurred after Mike failed to follow up on Barbaro's offer for city-favored status.
“He was definitely looking for some kind of handout, that we had to work with him if we wanted a spot,” Mike said of Barbaro. “I helped start Measure CC and spent two and a half years on that, the city took all my ideas, gave me the finger and got me arrested. I'm so glad I didn't waste any more time or any more money.”
The Weekly attempted to interview Barbaro for this story but he was in a meeting and didn't respond to an urgent message left with his secretary. Sonia Carvalho, Santa Ana's city attorney, also did not respond to an interview request for this story by press time.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).