RI Speaker's aide who allegedly failed to disclose ties to marijuana business resigns

PROVIDENCE - A top aide to House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi resigned Thursday amid allegations he was a "silent" partner in a marijuana growing business at the same time he had a high-level insider's view of the State House decision-making about the growth of Rhode Island's marijuana industry.

A Shekarchi spokesman confirmed Thursday that John Conti, the $136,032 a year senior deputy chief of staff to the House Speaker, resigned on Thursday morning, before WPRI-TV aired a report on Conti's "Troubling Ties" to the marijuana industry and an alleged mob figure.

The report centered in part on Rhode Island State Police findings during an investigation of undisclosed owners of Organic Bees, cited in a consent decree posted by the Department of Business Regulation. The report was issued last February.

"On or about February 10, 2021,'' the report said, "the RISP supplied the Department with certain information relative to the execution of a search warrant, which resulted in the seizure and search of a cellular telephone belonging to Raymond R. Jenkins III, a.k.a 'Scarface' ('Jenkins') of...Johnston," that contained "thousands of pages of text messages, e-mails, and pictures."

Texts to and from Conti appear under the heading: "Undisclosed Interest Holders, Key Persons, and/or Individuals with Managing Control."

On April 15, 2021, "as a result of the RISP investigation, Jenkins was arraigned on three criminal charges: perjury, giving a false document to DBR, and conspiracy to commit giving a false document to DBR." On July 29, 2021, "Jenkins pled nolo contendere to one count of perjury for making a false material declaration on a medical marijuana cultivator application to DBR, [stating] that he was a trimmer in Respondent’s operation when he was really an owner, according to the DBR posting."

Jenkins received a two-year suspended sentence with probation for his plea.

Conti has not been charged.

“Mr. Conti had no role in the business organization, Organic Bees,” Conti’s attorney, Jimmy Burchfield Jr., said in a statement to WPRI. “Mr. Conti has been employed by the House of Representatives honorably serving under four speakers since first hired in December 2006.”

Shekarchi spokesman Larry Berman issued this statement on Thursday in response to Journal inquiries: "Speaker Shekarchi takes allegations like those reported in the WPRI story that aired this evening extremely seriously, and does not tolerate conduct of this kind.  Speaker Shekarchi has absolutely no knowledge of the business entity known as Organic Bees or any of the other allegations asserted within the story.”

Beyond that, he said: "John Conti’s duties have been exclusively limited to building operations [during Shekarchi's tenure as Speaker.}.  He had absolutely no involvement, input or participation in any of the policy discussions or decisions relating to the Rhode Island Cannabis Act of 2022, or any other legislation or policy.  "

Under the consent decree issued by DBR, Organic Bees had until March 21, 2022, to complete sale of its inventory to Rhode Island's licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, known as "compassion centers," and use the proceeds exclusively to "repay the Unsecured Convertible Promissory Note dated January 1, 2020 issued by [Organic Bees] to Cordos Development & Associates LLC."

In a related development, the citizens advocacy group Common Cause of Rhode Island called on the governor to reject the names the House speaker submitted to him for appointment to one of the seats on the newly created Cannabis Control Commission.

Shekarchi nominated three candidates for the seat on July 21: former state Rep. Robert B. Jacquard, Jr., Stephen M. McCartney and Rachel Russell.

As a starting point, the organization suggested "the appointment scheme interferes with the Separation of Powers" clause in the R.I. Constitution."

Common Cause also alluded to allegations, within the WPRI report, that "Conti leaked confidential information from the proposed state budget about expansion of the state’s medical marijuana business to Mr. Jenkins, and others, and met with him at the State House during the work day."

“We know that those setting the rules shouldn’t be the same ones in charge of ensuring those rules are followed," said Common Cause's executive director John Marion, suggesting the General Assembly repeal the provision of the Rhode Island Cannabis Act that gives the Speaker of the House a role in naming a member to the Commission.

He also urged the General Assembly "to close the loophole that allowed Mr. Conti to walk away from his role as a silent partner in a marijuana cultivation business without any legal consequences."

The Rhode Island Republican Party also weighed in.

It called for a meeting for the first time in more than a decade of the legislative hiring, firing and spending arm known as the Joint Committee on Legislative Services to "fumigate the State House from the stench of cannabis corruption," and mroe specifically: publicly ask Shekarchi's chief of staff, Ray Simone, what he knew about Conti's extracurricular activities, when he knew it and what role, if any, Conti played in the development of the state’s marijuana policies."

In response to the controversy, Shekarchi's spokesman Berman sent along a summary of the history of the new law legalizing adult use of marijuana.

He said it was the result of "extensive collaboration and valued input from a wide variety of interests including state government, the courts, the attorney general, industry experts, criminal justice advocates, health experts and members of the public,' and it included an amendment aimed at addressing Common Cause's "Separation of Powers" concern.

"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. The statute further requires the speaker of the house to submit to submit a list of three recommendations for the governor’s consideration in appointing one of the members.  The governor must only consider the recommendations, and is not required to select any of the three members from the list."

The Rhode Island State House.
The Rhode Island State House.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: John Conti, Shekarchi's aide, resigns after news he allegedly failed to disclose ties to Organic Bees