Florida-based Trulieve, already the largest medical marijuana operator in the state, officially became the nation’s biggest cannabis retailer after recently closing on a $2.1 billion merger with former competitor Harvest Health & Recreation Inc.
Notably, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has some regulatory oversight of the medical marijuana industry, while she is also deeply enmeshed in what can only be described as a glaring conflict of interest. Fried is not only in an ongoing romantic relationship with Jake Bergmann, a marijuana industry investor and former executive, but she also has a more direct tie to Trulieve in the form of stock ownership with its newly acquired asset, Harvest Health & Recreation.
Fried’s most recent financial disclosure showed she still owned $130,000 in Harvest Health stock as of last month, a financial stake she initially attempted to hide from the public through the improper use of a blind trust. In mid-2019, the Florida legislature later passed, and Governor Ron DeSantis later signed, a bill outlawing the practice of hiding assets in a blind trust, forcing Fried to disclose the conflict of interest in subsequent financial disclosures.
Now that she’s a candidate for governor, Fried has attempted to neutralize the scandal by promising to divest herself of the Harvest Health / Trulieve stock ownership, but only if she actually wins the governor’s race, according the Miami Herald, which glossed over the controversy in a story early last month. The newspaper took her statement at face value and hasn’t looked deeper:
Florida Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor Nikki Fried has about a $130,000 investment in Harvest, her 2020 financial disclosure shows. She’s pledged to sell that stake should she win the governor’s race in 2022.
But that simple pledge to rid herself of the conflict “if” she becomes governor in 2022 begs the question: why wait? If it’s a significant ethical conflict if she were elected governor, it’s clearly already a serious ethical conflict now.
Florida’s legacy media outlets have traditionally been relentless in digging into perceived conflicts with Republicans, notably former governor Rick Scott and now DeSantis, but virtually every single Fried financial scandal has been broken by independent digital media outlets, while legacy media outlets have provided only cursory coverage of reporting by other outlets. in some cases, Gannett, the largest media company in the state, has simply ignored Fried’s scandals entirely.
While Fried’s $130,000 ownership stake in Harvest is relatively small compared to the $2.1 billion value of the company, it still represents a substantial windfall for Fried, who received the stock when she was still lobbying for the company’s predecessor, San Felasco Nurseries. Fried’s policy decisions and regulatory oversight have the potential to boost her own financial bottom line. She’s never disclosed the exact number or class of the stock shares she owns, and questions remain about other potential financial ties she might have to the company that was once her former client.
An ethics complaint filed against Fried for her failure to properly disclose her income is still pending before the state ethics commission.