PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Common Cause Rhode Island is calling on Gov. Dan McKee to change the state’s marijuana laws following a Target 12 investigation that revealed a top aide to House Speaker Joe Shekarchi had ties to an illegal marijuana business and a mob associate.
Executive director John Marion also called on the governor to reject three people Shekarchi has recommended to serve on a key marijuana regulatory panel. He argued the General Assembly should be kept at arm’s length when it comes to overseeing the marijuana industry, especially with recreational sales slated to begin Dec. 1.
“We know that those setting the rules shouldn’t be the same ones in charge of ensuring those rules are followed,” Marion said.
The call for action comes in the wake of a Target 12 investigation into John Conti, who was hired at the State House in 2006 and most recently served as House Speaker Joe Shekarchi’s senior deputy chief of staff. He resigned just hours before the report aired Thursday.
A multiyear R.I. State Police probe shows Conti had close ties to mob associate Raymond “Scarface” Jenkins and the two were business associates of Organic Bees, a marijuana cultivation company that regulators shut down earlier this year.
Police also surveilled Conti attending several events with high-ranking members of the New England Crime Family, also called La Cosa Nostra, including Edward “Eddie” Lato, who police identified as the newly promoted underboss. Target 12 obtained surveillance video that shows Conti even met with Jenkins during a workday in late 2020 in the upper parking lot of the State House.
“The revelations in the Channel 12 reporting about John Conti reveal why the legislature should not be involved in the day-to-day regulation of Rhode Island’s newly legalized recreational marijuana market,” Marion said.
Marion called for the General Assembly to repeal a provision of the Rhode Island Cannabis Act that gives Shekarchi a role in naming a member to the Cannabis Control Commission — a new three-member panel that will oversee the recreational market. He argued the appointment process interferes with the separation of powers enshrined in the R.I. Constitution.
Shekarchi helped ensure the state’s new marijuana law allowed him to offer three recommendations to McKee for appointments to the Cannabis Control Commission. In July, he submitted the names of former Rep. Robert Jacquard, former Warwick Police Chief Stephen McCartney, and Rachel Russell.
On Friday, Shekarchi said he was “dismayed by the allegations contained” in Target 12’s investigation, adding he “does not tolerate such conduct.” But he pushed back on Common Cause Rhode Island’s statement, arguing the the marijuana law’s original language was amended “to resolve separation of powers concerns by Common Cause and others.”
“After amendment, the statute makes clear: the power to appoint all three members is reserved exclusively to the governor, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate,” Shekarchi spokesperson Larry Berman said in a statement, adding that the “governor must only consider the recommendations, and is not required to select any of the three members from the list.”
McKee, who’s indicated he would make his Cannabis Control Commission picks as early as December, said Friday he’s still considering his options.
“All the appointments are under review right now and no decision has been made,” McKee told Target 12, adding that he’s committed to make sure that “everything is done in the best possible way.”
When asked whether he was concerned about one of the the speaker’s top aides being linked to an illegal marijuana operation and the New England mob, McKee lauded the R.I. Department of Business Regulation for cracking down on Organic Bees — which was officially shut down in March.
“I know on the state side, DBR did the work that it needed to do,” he said. “I’ll leave it up to the speaker to decide what to do with his staff.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook