JEFFERSON CITY — The state’s top marijuana regulator made a campaign contribution to the opponent of the man who was leading an investigation into the state’s embattled medical cannabis program.
Missouri Ethics Commission records show that Lyndall Fraker, director of the medical marijuana division in the Department of Health and Senior Services, made a $288 in-kind contribution on July 29 to state Rep. Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola.
Eslinger was running in a three-way primary for state Senate; one of her opponents was Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, whose Special Committee on Government Oversight held a number of hearings early this year probing Fraker’s program.
The donation preceded the release of a report Monday by House Democrats disclosing that “credible allegations emerged” in May that Gov. Mike Parson’s administration interfered in the committee’s probe.
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Though Parson has criticized the report, and subsequent media coverage, House Republican leadership has stayed silent on the Democrats’ findings, not responding to several requests for comment.
Fraker and Ross also did not respond to requests for comment. Fraker is a former Republican state representative from Marshfield, which is located within the 33rd Senate District in southern Missouri, where Ross and Eslinger were running in the Aug. 4 primary.
Eslinger ultimately won the primary, defeating Ross and a third opponent, former state Rep. Van Kelly.
“I think the optics are horrible,” Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat on the investigative committee, said of the contribution. “Literally working against the campaign of the person that’s investigating has a bad look of guilt.”
“Sure smells off,” he added.
Lawmakers grilled Fraker and other top marijuana program regulators for hours during a series of hearings earlier this year.
In March, Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa, sharply criticized Fraker, saying that whether it was his “ignorance or confusion or incompetence, Director Fraker clearly didn’t have the experience needed in the position.”
Lawmakers blasted the Parson administration’s decision to hire a third-party scorer to “blindly” grade applications from marijuana businesses — a process that appeared to be not so blind after companies were allowed to submit their own facility identification numbers, which often resembled the actual company name, Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger reported in May.
The program has also been criticized for a lack of emphasis on minority inclusion, a cap on licenses and a scoring bonus that benefitted applicants in some ZIP code areas but not others.
Holes in the medical marijuana patient certification process, such as not verifying with physicians that they actually certified a patient, have left doctors vulnerable to identity theft and patients vulnerable to scams.
Hundreds of jilted applicants filed appeals with the Administrative Hearing Commission earlier this year. As of last week, 785 appeals were still pending.
The state has burned through $1.3 million in medical marijuana business and patient fees to cover the cost of hiring private attorneys to defend its licensing decisions.
Money generated from the medical marijuana program is supposed to go to a new Veterans’ Health Care Fund, after accounting for the costs of the program.