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DeSantis promised to ‘drain the swamp’ in Florida. But his record on medical marijuana raises questions


By Steve Contorno, Scott Glover, Randi Kaye and Nelli Black, CNN

(CNN) — As Ron DeSantis seeks to cut into Donald Trump’s double-digit lead in the Republican presidential race, the Florida governor has criticized the former president for failing to deliver on one of his signature promises.

“He didn’t clean up the swamp,” DeSantis said during a recent debate of Trump’s vow to eliminate the hold lobbyists and special interests have on government. “He said he was going to drain it. He did not drain it.”

DeSantis, who had adopted the “drain the swamp” pledge for himself in his bid to become Florida’s 46th governor, routinely tells voters on the campaign trail that he kept that promise in Florida and will do the same in Washington, DC if elected president.

But a CNN investigation into the very first bill DeSantis signed into law as governor, legalizing smokable medical marijuana in the Sunshine State, raises questions about his own record on catering to special interests and campaign donors.

It’s a chapter of his political career that went unmentioned in his book published earlier this year and one that isn’t part of his campaign stump speech along side his other legislative victories.

To piece together this story, CNN reviewed campaign finance reports, court records, business filings and newly obtained video footage of a private political fundraiser hosted by a doctor once at the forefront of the medical marijuana movement. Combined, they show how DeSantis repeatedly intersected with a cast of players in the state’s budding cannabis industry to his benefit and sometimes to theirs.

As he was promising Floridians he would clean up Tallahassee if they elected him, DeSantis was also courted by marijuana interests who helped bankroll his campaign, including the family of a man who would become one of his top political appointees and a Republican fundraiser who would later go to prison for campaign finance violations. Industry lobbyists raised money for him, special interests donated to him, and one marijuana entrepreneur flew him in a private plane.

Once enacted, the new law DeSantis signed helped fuel what would become a billion-dollar industry in Florida. DeSantis then quietly fought to ensure only a handful of companies could sell marijuana through a regulatory system he once likened to a “cartel” but ultimately helped to preserve.

Among those that benefited was one of the top medical marijuana producers in the US, a Florida company launched amid allegations of the sort of swampy behavior DeSantis would later vow to eradicate.

DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to a detailed list of questions from CNN. In a statement, spokesman Bryan Griffin accused CNN of reporting “opposition narratives from the Trump campaign and their allies to smear Ron DeSantis.”

“As he’s always said and repeatedly shown, donors have no influence on policy decisions,” Griffin said. “No one has done more to deliver on his promises for the conservative movement than Ron DeSantis and that is why he is the hands-down best choice to lead the Republican Party in 2024 and America as our next President.”

‘Our foot on the gas pedal for Ron’

At first blush, DeSantis seemed an unlikely candidate to usher in a momentous expansion of marijuana. He ran for governor after serving in the US House, where he voted against making the drug more accessible to veterans. During his 2018 campaign he dismissed recreational marijuana because his high school classmates who smoked pot “didn’t do good” in school and sports. He counted among his financial backers the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose fortune had often funded anti-marijuana efforts across the country, including in Florida.

Yet, within DeSantis’ political orbit was a trio of close friends with deep ties to the marijuana industry, led by US Rep. Matt Gaetz. Before advancing to Congress, Gaetz, the son of a former president of the state Senate, served in the Florida legislature, where in 2014 he introduced Florida’s first foray into medical marijuana, a bill legalizing a non-euphoric strain of the drug for use with patients suffering from cancer and other serious ailments.

The bill had support from state Rep. Halsey Beshears, the former chief financial officer at a family-owned tree farm that later joined forces with two other nurseries to win one of a handful of coveted licenses created by the 2014 law to produce medical marijuana. That venture would become Trulieve, Inc, which is today one of the leading medical marijuana producers in the US. His brother Thad co-founded the company and owns a sizable share of it.

Shortly after the 2014 law passed, Jason Pirozzolo, a doctor and close friend of Gaetz and Beshears, launched a medical marijuana consulting company and later co-founded an advocacy group aimed at educating doctors about its use as an alternative to opioids.

In summer 2018, Pirozzolo hosted a private political fundraiser for DeSantis at his posh lakeside house a few minutes west of Orlando. He showed up in style, touching down in a helicopter alongside Gaetz. Inside his home mingled Beshears and several members of Pirozzolo’s advocacy group, the American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association.

With DeSantis looking on, Gaetz thanked Pirozzolo for helping him and Beshears “when I wrote Florida’s first medical marijuana law,” according to video of the fundraiser obtained by CNN.

Pirozzolo, meanwhile, told his guests it probably would not be the last time he asked them for money and suggested the solicitations might continue all the way up to a hypothetical 2024 White House bid by DeSantis.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas pedal for Ron.”

Later that month, the doctor would personally fly DeSantis to a campaign event, an early example of DeSantis’ preference for private air travel arranged by wealthy donors. Such arrangements have lately come under scrutiny during his presidential campaign. David Haas, an attorney for Pirozzolo, said in an email to CNN that his client “never discussed marijuana legislation with Ron DeSantis. Any allegation or inference that any such discussions occurred is categorically false.”

Closest governor’s race in state history

Around the time of the fundraiser, Beshears, Pirozzolo and Gaetz traveled to the Bahamas where they spent time in the company of young women. The trip made headlines in 2021 amid disclosures that federal prosecutors were investigating Gaetz for sex trafficking and an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving medical marijuana. Gaetz has consistently denied any wrongdoing, and the investigation was dropped without charges earlier this year.

In fall 2018, Pirozollo co-hosted another fundraiser in which he was listed as a $50,000 co-chair. Around that time, Gaetz gave DeSantis $75,000 from a federal campaign committee that was full of donations from marijuana interests. Gaetz did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

Trulieve contributed $50,000 to the Florida GOP, which was heavily involved in electing DeSantis and paying for his campaign ads. The Beashers brothers donated more than $75,000 to DeSantis’ campaign and political committee, including through a half dozen businesses and entities controlled by their family. Surterra, another medical marijuana company operating in the state, contributed $60,000 to DeSantis’ committee.

DeSantis’ political committee also received $10,000 from Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist deeply involved in its cannabis industry. At the time of the donation, Trulieve was paying Ballard’s firm $40,000 every three months to represent it in Washington, DC. Before that, Ballard had lobbied for five Florida nurseries that sought to grow and sell medical marijuana in the state after the 2014 law passed. He also had a financial interest in three different marijuana ventures that received licenses, according to their applications to the state. All three eventually sold those licenses to out-of-state companies in eight-figure deals.

The day after winning the closest governor’s race in state history, DeSantis tapped Gaetz to head up his transition team. Pirozzolo received a coveted spot on the board governing Orlando’s airport. Halsey Beshears was given a top post as the secretary of the Department of Business and Regulation. His brother Thad was put on the “transition advisory committee on Health and Wellness.”

Ballard, meanwhile, was named chair of DeSantis’ inaugural fundraising committee. The co-chair was a lobbyist for Surterra, who touts his extensive work shaping Florida’s marijuana laws and regulations on his website.

‘Who am I to judge?’

It didn’t take long for DeSantis to advance the marijuana industry’s top priority. At a news conference nine days after his swearing in, DeSantis stood next to Gaetz and demanded state lawmakers quickly draft and approve legislation that would make medicinal pot available to Floridians in smokable form. They were joined by John Morgan, a wealthy plaintiff’s attorney nicknamed “Pot Daddy” for his medical marijuana advocacy and a major donor to DeSantis’ Democratic opponent in the governor’s race.

Morgan had helped bankroll a successful 2016 ballot referendum to amend the state Constitution and greatly increase patient access to medical marijuana in Florida. He sued Florida the following year after state lawmakers and then-Gov. Rick Scott moved to prevent doctors from prescribing marijuana in smokable form.

Just as he would with other contentious priorities over the next five years, DeSantis pursued this one aggressively, publicly threatening lawmakers with an ultimatum and using the bully pulpit to rally support for his cause.

The Republican-controlled state legislature, two years after prohibiting smokable medical marijuana, reversed course and lifted its ban, delivering DeSantis a win and the first law of his governorship.

“Who am I to judge?” DeSantis asked at the time. “I want people to be able to have their suffering relieved.”

The early victory surprised many in Florida political circles, but apparently not one noteworthy figure who attended Pirozzolo’s fundraiser for DeSantis.

Joel Greenberg, then a little-known Orlando area tax collector, predicted it, according to a video shared by Morgan on the day DeSantis signed the bill.

“I owe this man an apology,” Morgan said, referring to Greenberg, who stood next to him grinning.

In the video, shot at the home of a future Trulieve lobbyist, Morgan said Greenberg claimed during the campaign that DeSantis would take steps to end the ban on smokable medical marijuana.

“Today, it was proven that the tax collector is not a liar,” Morgan continued in the video, which featured an appearance by Gaetz.

‘Most transactional governor’

Greenberg would a short time later become the subject of a wide-ranging criminal probe that expanded to include his associates Gaetz, Pirozzolo and Beshears and their trip to the Bahamas. Greenberg began cooperating with prosecutors and implicated Gaetz and others in various alleged crimes, but prosecutors filed no charges. Gaetz has consistently denied wrongdoing. Greenberg himself was convicted of sex trafficking a minor, stalking, fraud and identity theft and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.

In an interview with CNN, Morgan dismissed Greenberg as a blowhard who could have pretended to know more than he did.

Then again, Morgan said, somebody seemed to have gotten to DeSantis regarding an issue that was not previously on his radar.

Once an ally of DeSantis when it came to medicinal marijuana, Morgan told CNN he ultimately came to see him as “maybe the most transactional governor we’ve ever had.”

Gaetz is no longer a DeSantis ally, either. He’s backing Trump in 2024.

Some marijuana advocates hoped DeSantis would make other changes as well. The law authored by Gaetz in 2014 – and voted for by Halsey Beshears – prevented Florida’s licenses from going to businesses that hadn’t been in operation for at least 30 years.

That was no accident, according to John Thomas Burnette, a longtime friend of the Beshears brothers and the husband of Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers.

Burnette told an undercover FBI agent posing as a wealthy former drug dealer looking to invest in medical marijuana that he and Halsey Beshears had put some “little tweaks” in the law designed to benefit Trulieve and “keep out competitors.”

Burnette, who did not know the 2016 conversation was being recorded as part of a corruption probe in which he was a target, told agents he and Rivers knew little about the industry when they applied for one of a handful of licenses in the state other than that getting one would be “f**cking real valuable.”

“We didn’t have to know anything more than that,” Burnette added, according to a transcript of the conversation obtained by CNN.

Burnette, who was charged with extortion and bribery as part of a Tallahassee City Hall corruption scandal, testified during his trial two years ago that what he said on the recording about him and Beshears tweaking the marijuana law was him “bragging about something that kind of happened before my time.”

‘Asked and answered’

Prosecutors nonetheless cited the episode in a sentencing memorandum submitted to the judge after Burnette was convicted, arguing that the court should not believe Burnette’s explanation and noting that both he and Halsey Beshears had benefited from the marijuana law.

Burnette was sentenced to three years in prison. Though his ties to Trulieve and the medical marijuana industry routinely came up during the investigation, he was not charged with any crimes related to either.

Beshears was never charged with any criminal wrongdoing. He left the DeSantis administration in 2021, citing a health issue. In a brief phone conversation with CNN, Beshears dismissed questions about his role in medical marijuana as “a long time ago.”

“All of this has been asked and answered,” Beshears said. “I just don’t have anything to tell you, man.”

Trulieve did not respond to a request for comment.

The 2014 law also required companies to operate the entire marijuana business – from growing the plant to manufacturing products to operating dispensaries – a unique regulatory framework known as “vertical integration.” Only a handful of companies, including Trulieve, could meet the requirements.

Opponents of vertical integration thought they had an ally in DeSantis. At the same press conference where he called on lawmakers to approve smokable marijuana, DeSantis criticized the state’s existing regulatory framework as a “cartel essentially” that violated the free-market principles he ascribed to. He threatened to pull Florida out of a lawsuit that would have effectively dismantled the “cartel.”

But legislation to open Florida’s marijuana market died that year without public acknowledgement from the governor. Far from dropping Florida’s lawsuit, lawyers for DeSantis’ office defended vertical integration and convinced the state Supreme Court to preserve it.

“After they passed the smokeable bill, they acted like they got everything they really wanted,” said former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican who authored both the bill to end the ban on smokable marijuana and an unsuccessful bill to end vertical integration. He said he was instructed by Senate leadership to put each issue in a separate bill.

Asked about the political donations to DeSantis from the marijuana industry, Brandes told CNN: “I can’t speak to the money. I don’t know his motivation, but it stands to reason that it had an impact.”

CNN asked DeSantis’ office why the governor ultimately came to defend the regulatory system he once derided. A spokesman there did not respond to this or any other questions posed by CNN.

Record profits

DeSantis’ administration that same year sided with Trulieve in another legal dispute, this time over a state law that initially capped the number of dispensaries a single entity could own at 25.

By that spring of his first year in office, DeSantis’ state Department of Health reached a settlement with Trulieve that allowed it to nearly double the number of dispensaries it could open in a unique arrangement that didn’t apply to other marijuana operators in the state.

Courtney Coppola, the director of the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use at the time, brokered the deal with Trulieve, according to a local press report. Coppola later became a top aide in DeSantis’ office but now is a registered lobbyist for Trulieve. She works for Ballard’s firm, which opened a national cannabis practice in 2022.

Trulieve already had the most dispensaries in Florida before DeSantis arrived, but its outlook improved considerably after he took office. Within six months of DeSantis legalizing smokable medical marijuana, Trulieve, touting record profits, told investors smokable flower made up half of its sales in Florida and was driving patient growth.

A year later, the company reported its quarterly revenue had doubled to $136 million. Around that time, Trulieve made a $25,000 contribution to DeSantis’ political committee. Four months after, DeSantis helped kill legislation that could have capped the potency of medical marijuana sold in Florida.

Trulieve recently reported its revenue had reached $282 million for the three-month period ending June 30.

Amid Trulieve’s good fortune, Thad Beshears cashed in. In August 2020, with Trulieve’s stock near what was then its all-time high, he sold 585,000 shares worth nearly $12 million. A year later, the Beshears family nursery contributed $30,000 toward DeSantis’ reelection.

CNN reached out to Beshears for this story. He responded in a text declining comment.

“It’s old news and nothing new to write or talk about,” he said. Beshears remains a major shareholder in Trulieve.

Trulieve now has a new goal for Florida: recreational marijuana. The company has put more than $39 million into a referendum campaign to force full legalization of cannabis in the state.

DeSantis on the campaign trail said he’s against legalizing marijuana. He’s worried it will become too accessible to kids, and he doesn’t like the smell.

He has even begun to question the merits of the law he once championed. “It’s very controversial,” he said at campaign stop earlier this year in South Carolina, “because obviously there are some people that abuse it.”

An endorsement from Trump

One person who claims to have insight into why DeSantis went against his party to support more liberal use of medical marijuana is Lev Parnas, a once well-connected Republican fundraiser who had ties to Rudy Giuliani when Trump was President.

Parnas later emerged as a key figure in the first Trump impeachment, mainly regarding his work with Giuliani searching for dirt on Joe Biden in Ukraine. He was also sentenced last year to 20-months in federal prison for unrelated campaign finance violations while trying to obtain marijuana licenses in other states and for defrauding investors in one of his companies of more than $2 million.

But when DeSantis met him in 2018, Parnas still had close ties to Trump’s inner circle.

As first reported by Reuters and the local CBS station in Miami earlier this year, Parnas has said he was closer to DeSantis than the governor has publicly acknowledged, and that early in their relationship, DeSantis asked for his help in obtaining an endorsement from Trump.

In an interview with CNN at his home in Boca Raton, Parnas said he was initially unwilling to help because he perceived DeSantis as being unfriendly to his business prospects. Parnas was looking to invest in medical marijuana after Florida’s successful 2016 referendum, which made the drug more accessible.

“I told him, ‘You’re on the other side of the fence on that, and you are against everything I believe and am trying to establish,’” Parnas said, recounting their first meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

But according to Parnas, when the two ran into each other at the hotel again later that month, DeSantis told Parnas he could be swayed into supporting more liberal marijuana policies if Parnas could deliver an endorsement from Trump.

“It opened the door and we talked more about it until he assured me he was going to be pro cannabis,” Parnas told CNN in a series of interviews about his interactions with DeSantis.

DeSantis publicly expressed his support for legalized medical marijuana at a June 2018 “Drain the Swamp” campaign event in Pensacola at which he was joined by Gaetz.

Twelve days later, Parnas donated $50,000 to DeSantis’ political committee through a business named Global Energy Partners. The next day, Trump announced he was backing DeSantis for governor.

“He will be a Great Governor & has my full Endorsement!” Trump tweeted.

Parnas told CNN it should have been clear to DeSantis that his help was contingent upon him being supportive of medical marijuana.

“I don’t recall us having an exact conversation, like a quid pro quo type of a situation,” Parnas said. “But the whole conversation was a quid pro quo.”

CNN was unable to independently verify Parnas’ account. DeSantis declined to answer detailed questions about his interactions with Parnas from this time period. The Trump campaign and a spokesman for Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.

Following Parnas’ legal woes, DeSantis returned the $50,000 contribution and downplayed their relationship, describing him as “like any other donor.” But text messages between Parnas and DeSantis first reported by Reuters and reviewed by CNN showed the two had communication about fundraising, with DeSantis at times asking Parnas to nudge Giuliani to post certain messages on Twitter.

On election night, he and Parnas embraced in a celebratory hug as preliminary returns showed DeSantis was victorious. Parnas was then a VIP at DeSantis’ inauguration.

Parnas acknowledged others may have had Trump’s ear about endorsing DeSantis. Multiple sources told CNN that Gaetz was one of them. But in his mind, there was a clear linkage.

“The reason why Ron DeSantis became governor of Florida is because of a little plant called cannabis,” he said.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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