Sheriff Jon Lopey was startled when a stranger offered him $1 million if he would keep deputies away from certain illegal cannabis farms in Siskiyou County.
Lopey called in the FBI, and, later, deliveries of envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash were recorded by cameras and microphones hidden on the sheriff’s cluttered, wooden desk. Two people were later indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of attempting to bribe the elected sheriff.
“I was surprised and offended that a citizen would believe a law enforcement administrator would compromise his ethics and morals by accepting money,” said Lopey, whose rural county abuts the Oregon border and outlaws outdoor marijuana farms.
The cases are tarnishing an already troubled introduction of the state permitting of marijuana businesses as provided for when voters approved Proposition 64 in November 2016.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the multibillion-dollar nature of the marijuana industry is corrupting public officials,” said Lopey, a 41-year veteran of law enforcement who began his full-time career as a California Highway Patrol officer stationed in East Los Angeles.
Proposition 64 also outlawed the transportation of cannabis out of the state, which was an issue in the Siskiyou County indictments against Chi Yang and his sister, Gaosheng Laitinen.
Yang allegedly approached the sheriff in his county office in Yreka in the summer of 2017, and initially suggested the $1 million could go to a foundation headed by Lopey.
At one of the subsequent meetings where Lopey was handed the envelopes of cash, Laitinen allegedly sought assurances about what their payments would buy: “Are we talking about protection from being raided?” she asked the sheriff, according to a DEA agent’s affidavit attached to the criminal charging document.
The two allegedly paid Lopey $10,500, including four $500 cash bonuses, before they were arrested, according to court records.
That case is one of several that have involved cannabis sellers and growers allegedly bribing or trying to bribe government officials, or public officials acting illegally to get rich from marijuana.
Last year, Jermaine Wright, then the mayor pro tem of Adelanto, was charged with agreeing to accept a bribe to fast-track a marijuana business. Wright’s trial is scheduled for August. In May, FBI agents served search warrants at the home of Rich Kerr, who was mayor of Adelanto at the time. City Hall and a marijuana retailer were also served with warrants.
Not all of the recent cases involve elected officials. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Marc Antrim pleaded guilty two weeks ago to federal charges stemming from his arrest for robbing a warehouse of a half-ton of marijuana in October.
He declined to identify the cities involved, saying he has been asked by investigators not to talk about pending inquiries.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Proposition 64 supporter, declined to comment on the numerous bribery cases involving marijuana growers and sellers.
State law gives too much authority to local officials to dictate terms of city licenses, according to Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, a pro-legalization group that supported Proposition 64.
Clauder said cannabis growers paid him about $30,000 for every 100 pounds of marijuana he transported back east, and he made the cross-country trip about 45 times before he was arrested in Texas.
“I think it’s a temptation, if you can’t make it legally, to cross a line,” Clauder said. “I went from working for a U.S. congressman to being homeless and destitute overnight. What was I supposed to do? I just fell into it.”