Cannabis has fueled a tense public split between county supervisors Mike Maggard and Leticia Perez.
It’s powering attacks on the county as a whole from sidelined medical-marijuana dispensary owner David Abbasi.
And it has led to a wide-ranging investigation by the Kern County District Attorney’s office into corruption, bribery and extortion, District Attorney Lisa Green said Wednesday.
But one of the most serious claims may be the first one launched in this weed battle: Maggard’s statement that political activity by Perez’s husband, Fernando Jara, on behalf of cannabis may have created a conflict of interest for her.
Kern County supervisors, like all public officials, are required by law to separate their personal financial interests from the decisions they make.
In 2016 and 2017 Jara’s political consulting firm, Savage Communications, was active on the marijuana policy front. He said he carefully avoided any work that would have created a conflict.
Before Perez voted on marijuana regulations on Oct. 24, she and Jara voluntarily brought their situation to County Counsel Mark Nations and asked him to make sure his paid work didn’t represent a conflict of interest for her.
Both Nations and Perez said his review cleared her of conflict.
But new information obtained by The Californian shows Jara was more active than Nations knew.
And it's information Maggard used when he interpreted political advertisements against him and the decision by a close friend of Perez to challenge him for his Third District Supervisors seat as part of a direct attack against him by Perez and marijuana interest groups.
But when Maggard and supervisors David Couch, Mick Gleason and Zack Scrivner voted to ban marijuana on Oct. 24 — and Maggard portrayed medical marijuana dispensaries as being surrounded by people who defecate, urinate and fornicate there — Perez and Jara were incensed.
And they let Maggard’s chief of staff, Jeff Flores, know how they felt in no uncertain terms.
Perez fired a profanity-laced explosion of texts at Flores that predicted a string of aggressive political advertisements that would hit Maggard just months later.
“He (Maggard) is going to have a hell of (a) year in 2018,” she wrote. “We’ll see how he stomachs personal attacks.”
Perez and Jara have denied involvement in the attacks ad and campaign against Maggard by political action committees led by local activist T.J. Esposito and Riverside marijuana advocate Ben Eilenberg.
Much of what Maggard is seeing, Jara said, is generic political research he delivered to statewide business groups who were exploring investment in Kern County’s potential marijuana market last year.
He’s pretty sure others have taken the dossier work he did and used it to lobby, advocate and take political action on the issue of marijuana.
“I can see what looks like my work in these vendors' work,” he said.
But Maggard is holding his ground.
Jara said he got a job early in 2017 doing research for statewide medical marijuana interests who were interested in investing in the Central Valley and its vast reaches of prime agricultural land.
He was asked to draft a comprehensive map of the pot playing field in the Valley, he said, profiling politics, marijuana businesses and potential for investment.
Jara took the job and delivered the dossier of opposition research, he said, and then stopped working on marijuana.
Jara said he would help arrange meetings between people in the industry, but he didn’t take any money for work in Kern County.
It wasn't lobbying, he said. It was professional courtesy.
Public records obtained by The Californian show that those meetings were between marijuana interests and county planning officials, supervisors and staff in advance of the Oct. 24 vote on cannabis regulation by supervisors.
There is no record of payment.
But Abbasi did provide a text exchange between himself and Jara on July 28 where Jara offered to let one of Abbasi's friends in the marijuana business retain him for "5" — the same amount he charged Abbasi for his prior work.
Abbasi said that meant $5,000.
"I don't take contracts to influence votes on the Board of Supervisors," Jara replied.
Much of the information The Californian has obtained was provided by Maggard’s chief of staff, Flores, after The Californian asked Maggard to provide proof to support his claims against Perez.
More facts came to light after anti-dispensary activist David Brust filed a request for public information on Perez and Jara.
Much of Jara's meeting-making was on behalf of a Southern California group called Industrial Partners Group.
Riverside attorney Ben Eilenberg, representing the group of marijuana real estate developers, came into Kern County in late spring to lobby for legalization and regulation of cannabis.
Flores remembers a meeting — between March and May — with Jara, Eilenberg and IPG principals Martin and Steph Smith in Perez’s supervisor's office.
Jara said Eilenberg was a colleague in the advocacy world. He just helped get him a meeting.
But Jara didn't set up just one meeting.
Flores released a June 13, 2017 text exchange in which Jara asked if Supervisor Scrivner would take a meeting with IPG.
And county e-mail records show that on June 30, Jara reached out to Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt to set up a meeting with Martin Smith about several major property sites.
They met on July 24, before the Environmental Impact Report on cannabis that her office was in charge of drafting was released, Oviatt said. It was a meeting, she said, that any member of the public could get by calling her secretary.
On July 27 Oviatt let Jara know by e-mail that the EIR had been made public — a courtesy she said she provides to others in the public.
On Aug. 1, 2017 Jara contacted Oviatt again to set up a phone call on the topic of cannabis and Industrial Partners Group.
"If I remember correctly they wanted to know what workshops would be held for the EIR," Oviatt said.
Nations said he has seen many of those facts as a result of Brust’s public records request and that activity by Jara was not part of his original investigation into Perez’s conflict of interest risk.
His clearance for her vote on cannabis, he said, was based on what Perez and Jara gave to him in 2017.
But Nations said the information wouldn't necessarily change the outcome of his findings. He would have to do more investigating to learn if the meetings Jara was setting up were a problem for Perez. He is not currently doing that investigation.
Jara said the list of facts his wife's opponents are pulled together is designed to make it look like they broke the rules.
"It's public and there is nothing wrong with what I have done," Jara said. "This is an attempt to undermine the show of good faith we made it going to Nations."
"There is a proper and legal pathway to resolve this issue," Jara said. "They can file a complaint to the FPPC (the California Fair Political Practices Commission) and have them look into the claims."
He said he would welcome the investigation.
For a more detailed look at this conflict — including accusations of extortion by dispensary owner Abbasi and the personal story behind Perez's and Fernando Jara's belief in medical marijuana — visit bakersfield.com.