The state public health commissioner held two fund-raisers in 2005 and 2006 for then-US Representative William Delahunt, a fact she failed to disclose until her agency was in the final weeks of reviewing applications from the former congressman and dozens of others to operate medical marijuana dispensaries.
Cheryl Bartlett said on the conflict-of-interest disclosure form filed Dec. 31 that she would be selecting the license winners. But two weeks later, her deputy, the new director of the state medical marijuana program, was granted the authority to make the final decision. At the end of January, Delahunt’s group was awarded three of the coveted 20 licenses that were issued.
Bartlett, who became commissioner last June, had previously acknowledged that she donated to Delahunt’s campaign in 2007 and that the two attended charity events to raise money for AIDS patients and homeless people. But the form obtained by the Globe shows she also hosted political fund-raisers for Delahunt in 2005 and 2006.
The ties to Delahunt are raising eyebrows of competitors, given the success of his firm, Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts, in gaining all three licenses it sought, when no other firm got more than two.
New details also emerged about the credentials of the California resident, Avis Bulbulyan, who was hired by Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts to run its cultivation site and dispensaries in Plymouth, Mashpee, and Taunton. Bulbulyan was listed in an initial application last fall as an executive of the company, but in the final application he was taken off the leadership team, meaning he was not subject to an extensive background check. Such a check likely would have turned up that an Avis Bulbulyan of Glendale, Calif., filed for personal bankruptcy in 2011.
In interviews with the Globe over the past month, Bartlett and department spokesmen have stated that the agency had long intended, as far back as last April, to hire a director for the new medical marijuana program who would make the final licensing decisions.
Bartlett said in an interview last week that the director’s job was posted in October and that Karen van Unen, a part-time consultant who had worked with the agency since June on the program, was hired as director on Dec. 30.
Yet a day later, Bartlett filed the disclosure form with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services stating that she, and not van Unen, would be making the final choices for the licenses. “It is my responsibility to make the decision to approve or deny each application submitted,” she wrote, adding that she could do so “objectively and fairly.”
Her boss, state health secretary John Polanowicz, also signed the form.
Two weeks after that, on Jan. 13, van Unen filed a disclosure form stating that she would make final selections.
It’s not clear why Bartlett waited until Dec. 31 to file a conflict of interest form, even though the applicant-review process began last summer, or why the agency did an apparent about-face two weeks later and delegated the final licensing decisions to van Unen.
Asked those questions Monday, a department spokesman released a statement saying Bartlett had “no role” in the final selection process.
“After the holidays, the commissioner finalized the delegation of authority to Karen van Unen for final sign-off on Registered Marijuana Dispensaries,” the statement said. “This was well in advance of any recommendations that were made by the Selection Committee — that happened on Jan. 23.”
Bartlett’s conflict of interest form notes that she also made a campaign contribution in 2005 and in 2008 to former state senator Frederick Berry, who is listed as a director in the application of Mass Organic Therapy, a company that lost out to Delahunt’s in its bid for a license in Plymouth. Mass Organic received the second-highest score from an outside consulting company that reviewed all 100 applications submitted. Delahunt’s company received the highest scores for all three of its applications, besting Mass Organic by just two points.
A Boston Globe review of the winning applications found that, compared with the other firms, Delahunt’s company provided scant information about Bulbulyan, the Californian who was initially listed as a member of the firm’s leadership team. He will still be running daily operations at its dispensaries and in charge of cultivation.
In its final documents submitted to the state, the Delahunt group’s application states, “Although Mr. Bulbulyan has cultivation knowledge and skills that are valuable to the company, the board has since determined that such knowledge and skills do not parlay into executive management or business operational oversight skills and experience.”
Asked about Bulbulyan’s removal from the executive team in an interview last week, the group’s chief operating officer, Jonathan Herlihy, said, “It makes a lot more sense that the worker bees report to the chief operating officer.”
Herlihy said he could not recall names of medical marijuana firms where Bulbulyan had worked in California and has not provided the Globe a copy of Bulbulyan’s resume, despite promising to do so last Wednesday.
Delahunt also said in a brief interview that the company would provide Bulbulyan’s resume, but it had not done so as of Monday night.
According to the state application process, background checks would be conducted on each member of an applicant’s executive management team and board of directors. The check includes a consumer credit report and reports from “banks, credit bureaus, financial and other institutions.”
Attempts to reach Bulbulyan were unsuccessful. But a Globe review of court records shows that an Avis Bulbulyan of Glendale, the community in which Herlihy said Bulbulyan lived, filed for bankruptcy in 2011. The bankruptcy records give a home address that matches the business listing of a former medical marijuana collective in the database of the California secretary of state’s office.
The court file shows Bulbulyan owed about $44,000 to a dozen creditors, including a loan company that repossessed his BMW in 2009, a hunting and fishing club for hunting fees, and credit card firms.