ALL BARK, NO BITE: Some stories are so bad they’re good. Some stories are too good to be true. The 4,000-word rip-the-lid-off exposé written by screenwriter-turned-reporter Mitchell Kriegman in the most recent Los Angeles magazine about the corruptions wrought by cannabis in Santa Barbara, it turns out, are both. The article is, undeniably, a great read. Unfortunately, it’s also false at its very core.
The article — “In Sleepy Santa Barbara, a City Hall Insider Is Raising Eyebrows” — is an indefensibly one-sided warts-and-all romp through the landscape of Santa Barbara city politics in which dirt gets deliciously dished on Mayor Cathy Murillo, City Administrator Paul Casey, City Attorney Ariel Calonne, and former police chief Lori Luhnow.
But the most dirt is dumped on Luhnow’s right-hand man, Anthony Wagner, whom Kriegman depicts as a bully, a buffoon, and a crook — a public servant who rigged the deck on behalf of his former business partner in securing one of the city’s three lucrative cannabis dispensary permits. The partner then flipped it, making untold millions in profit.
People were aghast. “How could this happen?” they demanded.
Good question. The short answer: It didn’t.
Had Mitchell Kriegman only picked up the phone, he could have found that out. He didn’t.
Instead, in answer to my query, he said he emailed ”all the parties relevant to the article … well before publication, several more than once…. Questions were also submitted directly and a request for interviews and comments were also made. Not one responded,” he said.
Kriegman did get one thing absolutely right; Wagner is a great story. He’s a big gulp of man who packs a lot of carbonation. He talks big; he wears big shoes and loud socks. But Wagner steps on toes.
Before moving here from San Diego in 2017 to work with now retired chief Luhnow, Wagner had never been a cop, or even worked for a police department. It was weird. Even weirder, Luhnow cannibalized the position of deputy chief to pay Wagner’s salary. Not surprisingly, a lot of cops never took a shine to Wagner.
Wagner’s job experience was as a San Diego planning commissioner and as a land-use consultant specializing in converting farmland into integrated cannabis operations. His partner in that consulting firm was a guy named Micah Anderson, who, in Kriegman’s narrative, plays the role of “smoking gun.” Anderson, it’s important to note, is now a major cannabis supplier statewide.
When Santa Barbara City Hall solicited competitive bids for three cannabis licenses in 2018, five evaluators were chosen, approved by City Administrator Casey, from the City’s Fire, Planning, Administration, Attorney, and Police departments. Wagner was the public spokesperson for the group. He, after all, knew the industry. Together, these five each ranked the applicants based on their respective fields of expertise. Wagner, for example, ranked the applicants’ security plans.
Kriegman focused on the permit secured by Golden State Greens, a highly successful dispensary out of San Diego owned by a guy named Adam Knopf. Wagner knew Knopf from his San Diego Planning Commission days when he voted to approve a Knopf cannabis project.
Knopf’s proposal — for a dispensary by State Street and Ontare Road — would be one of the three finalists to win Santa Barbara’s cannabis beauty contest. Knopf secured all needed building permits, but he never built the dispensary or opened the business. Instead, he took advantage of a dubious provision in Santa Barbara’s cannabis ordinance that allowed him to sell his permits for millions to a Florida-based operator.
Lost in the flurry of Kriegman’s many insinuations is a genuine bombshell accusation. Kriegman alleges that Wagner’s former business partner Micah Anderson was a partner with Knopf in his Santa Barbara dispensary project. If true, that would mean Wagner helped evaluate the project of a former business partner. That, in any book, constitutes a major conflict of interest. Failure by Wagner to disclose such a fox-guarding-the-henhouse relationship would be grounds for immediate termination and perhaps legal action.
Acting Police Chief Barney Melekian placed Wagner on paid administrative leave this Monday so that an outside entity hired by City Hall could investigate Anderson’s role in this deal and determine if Wagner failed to disclose any conflict to his superiors.
I covered the dispensary selection process and have no recollection of Micah Anderson. His name appears on none of the documents. Had Kriegman talked to Wagner, Wagner would have told him — as he told me — Anderson had absolutely nothing to do with the deal.
Had he called Anderson, Anderson would have told him the same thing. I know because I called Anderson on Tuesday night. Anderson said he had nothing to do with the Santa Barbara deal and that he has no business relationships with Adam Knopf or Golden State Greens anywhere else. Anderson stated he and Knopf did try to get a dispensary approved in Pasadena a year after Knopf had won the Santa Barbara dispensary, but the Pasadena proposal did not survive the vetting stage.
Anderson also said he had never been contacted by anyone in connection with the Los Angeles magazine article either by phone, by email, or by text. “That’s kind of unusual,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
Kriegman wrote he tried to contact Wagner by email, but Wagner never responded. Wagner emphatically denied this, insisting Kriegman never tried to contact him even though Wagner gave him his cell phone number and email address.
The reason I believe Wagner is that Wagner is one of the most hyper-accessible people in city government. Kriegman also wrote that he sought comment from City Attorney Calonne but without success. Calonne said Kriegman sent him an email requesting comment for an article Kriegman said he’d already written. Calonne said he didn’t see the point in responding. Calonne showed me the email.
Kriegman now lives in Portugal. He’s a gifted screenwriter. The moral of the story? Don’t send a screenwriter to do a reporter’s job.