Let's Be Blunt: Bob Ballinger's Suspicious Ties to Medical Marijuana Licensing [UPDATED]

As reported last month by the Arkansas Times and other outlets, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission officially awarded cultivation permits to the applicants with top five scores in the application-scoring process. The winners were:

Natural State Medicinals Cultivation
Bold Team, LLC
Natural State Wellness Enterprises
Osage Creek Cultivation
Delta Medical Cannabis Company, Inc.

The issues with the initial scoring of the applications, which led to these being the top five scoring applications as well as leading to a lawsuit, are well documented. The thing about a rabbit hole like this, however, where lots of money and power-hungry politicians can so easily find one another, is that there seems to be more and more corruption the deeper you look.
That is doubly true if you start looking deep and plotting events and people on a timeline. So, let’s do that.
December 7, 2016: Then-Speaker of the Arkansas House Jeremy Gillam appoints lawyer Travis Story to be one of five commissioners on the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission. Yes, that is the same Travis Story who is Bob Ballinger’s law partner and whose name popped up in the prior post on Ballinger.
January 2017 through May 2017: Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) receives a total of $25 in contributions, spending his campaign account for his state representative race into the negative by the end of May.
June 4, 2017: Ballinger announces that he is running for the State Senate seat currently held by Sen. Bryan King.
June 15, 2017: Chase Duggar, through JCD Consulting, donates $325 in “Food” to Ballinger. JCD is a registered lobbyist for Osage Creek Cultivation, LLC.[footnote]JCD is also a registered lobbyist for Preferred Family Healthcare, executives of which were implicated in the Ecclesia kickback scheme.[/footnote]
June 15, 2017: Ballinger lists a $2,700 contribution from “AHC – PAC,” which is not a registered PAC in Arkansas as of that date. Assuming that AHC – PAC stands for one of the various PACs related to the Arkansas Health Care Association, it is noteworthy that the AHCA is a client of of Chase Duggar’s JCD Consulting and would have been giving this contribution on the same date as Duggar’s contribution.
June 15, 2017: Keith Emis of Diamond State Consulting donates $2,700 to Ballinger’s senate campaign. Diamond State Consulting represents Broadleaf PSG, an Ohio company headed by Cheney Pruett (DMP Investments) of Texarkana. Through Diamond State, Broadleaf bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising in support of the medical marijuana amendment in 2016. It is unclear which, if any, applicants Pruett may be attached to, but it may be worth noting any high-scoring applicants from Texarkana.
June 21, 2017: Todd Sears* donates $2,700 to Ballinger’s senate race. Sears is a business partner in Willy D’s piano bar with Bold Team, LLC, CEO Danny Brown. Additionally, Sears is the Incorporator/Organizer of a pizza restaurant business with Jason Willett, who is both the Incorporator and the “consultant” for Delta Medical Cannabis Company, LLC. Sears is not listed as an owner of Delta Medical, but is a registered agent for dispensary applicant THC Rx, Inc.
[Ed. note: An asterisk by a person’s name indicates that he or she submitted paperwork for a background check to the Arkansas State Police, which was required for medical-marijuana business applicants.]
June 28, 2017: Jay Trulove* and Mary Trulove* donate $1,000 to Ballinger’s senate campaign. The Truloves are owners of Osage Creek Cultivation. They are also current and former clients of both Bob Ballinger and Travis Story, and Jay Trulove’s name would later appear on an application scored by Story.
June 28, 2017: Henry Willmuth* donates $2,000 to Ballinger’s senate campaign. Willmuth is the registered agent for cultivation facility applicant Naturalis Health, LLC. Naturalis Health is owned, at least in part, by Jackson T. Stephens III, who has aimed to profit from the medical-marijuana industry in a number of ways, including as a cultivator and potentially as an industry banker. Stephens, who bought a house at 8 Vantage Point in Little Rock through an LLC that he owns, is also assumed to be part or all of the Vantage Investments, LLC, which pumped several hundred thousand into the effort to pass the marijuana amendment. (No “Vantage Investments, LLC,” is listed as having existed with the Arkansas Secretary of State; Vantage Investments Holdings, LLC, is listed as a dissolved LLC founded by Jackson T. Stephens III.)
June 29, 2017: Jason Polk* donates $2,000 to Ballinger’s senate campaign. Polk is an owner of Lake Liquor in Maumelle and is part of the Bevans family (by marriage), whose Bevans Family Trust was one of the largest backers of the effort to pass the marijuana amendment.
September 18, 2017: Deadline for filing applications for dispensary and cultivation licenses.
December 12, 2017: Ballinger accepts $500 from Committee for Responsible Government PAC in Columbus, OH, which is not a PAC that existed at that time according to the Ohio Secretary of State.
December 15, 2017: Leo Hauser and Marvin Parks each donate $125 to Ballinger’s campaign in “Food for Fundraiser” as a non-monetary contribution. Hauser and Parks are both lobbyists and are both part owners of Natural State Wellness Enterprises. At that fundraiser, Ballinger raises approximately $3,800 for his campaign. Part of that money is a $350 donation from “AHPA PAC,” which appears to be shorthand for “Arkansas Physician Hospital Association PAC,” which is the PAC arm of Marvin Parks’ lobbying client Arkansas Surgical Hospital.
Mid-December 2017: The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission begins scoring the applications.
February 27, 2018: The top-five scoring cultivation applications are announced, setting off a legal challenge that, ultimately, did not change the results.
Looking at the individual scores, however, turns up two interesting facts, one of which is obvious and one of which is less so. First, the obvious one, which has been touched upon elsewhere and is outside the scope of this article: Commissioner J. Carlos Roman was absolutely in the bag for applicant Natural State Medicinals Cultivation, giving them a 98 (out of 100) and, with one exception, generally scoring everyone else 75ish or below. With only 5 commissioners, a loss of 25-50 points from Roman would, by itself, drag down an overall score by 5-10 points. If you are going to ensure that your favorite gets one of the five slots available, effectively capping the competitors’ scores at 95 or below is a good way to do it. (That Roman gave his only other good score (90) to the company that tried to bribe him, Natural State Agronomics, is pretty telling as well.)
The second interesting item from the individual scores, however, comes from a glance at the scores given by Travis StoryBased on the numbers above, it appears that Ballinger received money that is directly or slightly indirectly tied to applicants Bold TeamOsage Creek CultivationNatural State Wellness EnterprisesDelta Medical Cannabis Company, and  Naturalis Health. The first four of these, of course, finished second through fifth in the application scoring as well.
Curiously, of the seven scores of 90 or higher that Travis Story handed out during the scoring of the cultivation application, three of them went to Osage Creek (94.5), Delta Medical (97), and Naturalis (90). His 89 score for Natural State Wellness is certainly in the same ballpark as well.[footnote]His score of 87 for Bold Team is something of an outlier, though that could mean that the contribution from Sears was related to Delta Medical, rather than Bold Team, or that Story knew that Bold Team would be fine regardless and was trying to make the subterfuge less obvious.[/footnote]
Both individually and as a whole, these scores have some interesting quirks. For instance, the 90 score for Naturalis was the highest score that company received and only Dr. Stephen Carroll, who scored most applications comparatively higher across the board, was close with 89. Even ignoring Roman’s tainted score of 59,[footnote]Seriously, Roman’s scoring of the applications was so grossly one-sided and designed to tamper with the outcome, people should be up in arms  that he was allowed to do that.[/footnote] Story’s 90 for company that appears in Ballinger’s fundraising looks odd against the 72 and 81 the company got from other judges.
Also of note, the other scores of 90+ that Story handed out looked like this:

  • Natural State Medicinals, 93. when everyone else scored it 98 or 99, effectively meaning that Story brought the overall winner’s score down one point on his own.Was he trying to keep the race close by sandbagging the application that everyone else scored nearly perfect?
  • Regeneration Naturals, 91. This company is out of — wait for it — Texarkana. Remember what I said above about looking out for something that Cheney Pruett might possibly be involved in? Also, the commissioner from Texarkana scored this one a 96, while the others scored it 64/76/87.
  • River Valley Relief Cultivation (94.5) and Clinice (90.5). Both companies are out of Fort Smith, sharing the same address, and are owned by Storm Nolan and Chris Whitt, respectively. Nolan and Whitt are partners in CSK Partners, which owns CSK hotels, and both seem to have extensive business interests and holdings in the Fort Smith area. Additionally, Nolan is the founder of the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association. It is unclear what ties, if any, Nolan and Whitt have to Story and/or Ballinger, but the fact that Story scored both of these applications above 90 seems awfully coincidental given how few Story scored above 90. This certainly warrants further investigation.

Overall, what do we have? Well, we have Bob Ballinger, whose law partner had already been named a commissioner six months prior, getting $13,100 of his $29,900 raised in June 2017 from marijuana-industry related donors, including large donations from all three of the biggest financial backers of the marijuana measure. We have Ballinger receiving money from people tied to three of the top 5 finishers in the scoring, with Story then giving those three scores of 89, 94.5, and 97, as well as giving a 90 to a company that donated to Ballinger but otherwise finished well out of the top 10. We have Ballinger receiving money from, and Story giving a high score to, people who were clients of Ballinger and Story’s law practice, with neither Ballinger nor Story thinking such a thing was improper.
In short, we have something that does not pass the smell test at all.
Between this and the Ecclesia mess, to say nothing of Story’s ties to Jason Rapert and the 10 Commandments monument, it seems almost an understatement to say that Bob Ballinger and Travis Story are shady.

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