After a string of embarrassing revelations about proposed medical marijuana dispensaries, state regulators vowed to expand the background checks and scrub every inch of firms’ applications during the verification phase of the approval process.
A security firm conducted more than a hundred additional background checks and investigative interviews. And the state weeded out nearly half the 20 finalists, including several for misrepresenting their meetings with local officials.
“If somebody lied on their application, they are not going to get a license,” Governor Deval Patrick said flatly in a WGBH radio interview in February.
Yet despite that vow, the state knowingly granted two provisional licenses to a company whose director falsely claimed to be a college graduate in the application, the Globe has learned.
Kevin Fisher, executive director of New England Treatment Access Inc. and the owner of a marijuana business in Colorado, claimed he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Youngstown State University, but the school says it has no record of his receiving any degree.
The state’s screening company detected the missing degree in April, but the state let the company go forward with plans to open dispensaries in Northampton and Brookline anyway.
“I am surprised,” said state Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, who said the state assured him it would thoroughly vet all the applications after questions came up about some of the companies that were initially approved. “I think this is cause for concern.”
Fisher initially promised a state contractor who was looking for his graduation records that he would obtain transcripts proving he had a degree. Then Fisher told her he could not order the transcripts after all because he owed the school thousands of dollars and assumed that was why the school reported he did not earn a degree, a notion that a university spokesman later dismissed.
Regardless, if the state insisted on proof that he graduated, Fisher said, “I would request lenience in amending said resume” to remove the degree, according to an e-mail he sent the contractor on April 16 and shared with the Globe.
Fisher said he never heard back from the state. But on June 27, the state announced New England Treatment Access had passed the verification phase of the approval process without mentioning the resume issue. Now the firm just needs local permits and final approval from state inspectors before opening for business as early as December. It is the only company to receive more than one of the 11 provisional licenses awarded so far.
The revelation raises new questions about whether the state missed or ignored key problems with companies’ applications to sell medical marijuana during the latest, more intense round of fact checking.
The Department of Public Health confirmed Monday night that it was aware of the resume issue, but suggested it was irrelevant because the agency did not require any specific educational credentials as part of the approval process.
“If information was uncovered that impacted the applicant’s ability to provide high-quality patient access, the program took action,” DPH spokesman David Kibbe said in a statement. He declined to say whether the agency was confident that other information in applications was accurate.
The decision also opens the state up to potential charges of favoritism. Many applicants who were passed over in earlier rounds of the review process say the state ignored problems at other companies with political connections.
When Fisher applied for a license in Colorado, he told regulators he did not graduate from Youngstown.
New England Treatment Access employs a key former DPH staff member, Andy Epstein, a nurse who helped craft the state’s medical marijuana regulations before retiring from government last year; she is now the company’s patient/medical director. Former US congressman Barney Frank was also listed on the firm’s initial payroll as director of community and government relations, though he resigned in March before the state detected the issue with Fisher’s resume.
“Any misrepresentation should disqualify them,” said Lesley Rich, an attorney and president of a company that unsuccessfully applied to open a facility in New Bedford and is suing the state. “There’s no question that throughout this whole process, there has been a whole undercurrent of special treatment.”
In several other instances, the state eliminated applications in June after finding incorrect information in their applications. For instance, it found that Good Chemistry misrepresented its meetings with local officials in Boston and Worcester.
In other cases, the state allowed companies to remove executives or directors after embarrassing information about their background surfaced. For instance, three companies that made it through the verification process cut ties to a couple that owned a Colorado marijuana facility that was forced to close because of violations there.
The head of New England Treatment Access also has experience selling legal marijuana in Colorado.
Fisher, a former restaurant wine steward, has run Rocky Mountain Remedies, a business in Steamboat Springs, Colo., that has sold medical marijuana for five years and recreational marijuana to adults since January. Until last month, Fisher also chaired the board of the state’s industry trade group, the Marijuana Industry Group.
“He’s doing everything he can to make this a well-regulated industry,” said Michael Elliott, the group’s executive director.
His Colorado shop, based in an industrial part of town, sells more than a dozen variety of marijuana with names like “Glowing Goat,” “Pandora’s Box,” and “Sour Diesel.”
Fisher said he also knows firsthand the benefits of medical marijuana; he sometimes uses it to treat pain from injuries he suffered kayaking and other outdoor sports.
Colorado regulators confirmed last week that Fisher has a current license and that there have been no administrative actions filed against Fisher or the business.
“He has been very upfront and transparent,” said Steamboat Springs Police Chief Joel Rae. “We as a city police department have not had any problems with the way he operates either of his marijuana businesses.”
DPH said academic credentials were not a factor in which companies received provisional licenses. The state said applicants needed to prove they had management experience and other qualifications, but did not necessarily need any specific degrees.
But lying about a college degree is usually considered a significant sin, because it raises questions of integrity. Many executives have been forced out for misrepresenting their college degrees, including a former chief executive of Yahoo Inc. and the head of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge.
Fisher acknowledged he misstated how many years he went to college. His resume said he spent two years at Miami University in Ohio, when school records show he dropped out after his freshman year.
But Fisher said he thought he later earned a degree from Youngstown State University, another public school in his hometown. He said he recalls taking all the required coursework after meeting with an adviser.
“I believe I have a degree,” he said.
But Fisher acknowledged that he has no proof. Fisher said he never attended graduation or received a paper diploma. And he does not have copies of transcripts. The only documentation Fisher produced was a diploma case he said he received from Youngstown State, containing a slip of paper that said, “Congratulations on your graduation from Youngstown State University.” However, there is no diploma in the case. Instead, it contained general information on where students could pick up their diplomas. It did not name any particular student.
“I understand the facts of the matter, but I think one could reasonably understand my assumption [that I graduated],” Fisher said.
However, when Fisher applied for a license to operate a marijuana business in Colorado four years ago, he told regulators he did not graduate from Youngstown, said Natriece Bryant, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue, which licenses marijuana operators in that state.
Fisher says the degree issue first came up in Massachusetts a few months ago when Creative Services Inc., the company the state hired to conduct background checks on companies seeking licenses to sell medical marijuana, told him it could not find any record that he received a bachelor’s degree.
But Fisher suggested that was only because he owed the school nearly $3,600 from fall 1998. He said he figures that his estranged father stopped paying for school when his mother became ill around that time.
“It is my assumption that the school reports me as only [having] been ‘enrolled’ due to this deficiency,” he told the investigative firm.
Youngstown State representatives confirmed he attended the school, but said they could find no record that Fisher ever received a degree. “An unpaid balance is not a factor,” said Ron Cole, the school spokesman.
Fisher insists he never intended to embellish his resume. He said he was later accepted into law school (though he did not wind up enrolling there) and always assumed he had graduated.
“This was not an attempt at misrepresentation,” he said.