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Jon Lender: The wife of the lone GOP senator who voted for Connecticut’s recreational marijuana has a job at medical cannabis grower Curaleaf

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 6/8/2021 Jon Lender, Hartford Courant
text, application, email: An excerpt from Sen. Kevin Witkos' statement of financial interests for 2020 to the Office of State Ethics © Office of State Ethics files An excerpt from Sen. Kevin Witkos' statement of financial interests for 2020 to the Office of State Ethics

Esther Witkos, the wife of state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton — who was the lone Republican to vote yes when the Senate voted 19-17 to approve a controversial bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana — has a job with Curaleaf, a medical marijuana grower/producer, state records show.

Witkos, a six-term senator and former police officer, made no comments early Tuesday morning before he voted along with 18 Democrats to give Senate approval to the bill, which now goes to the House — where legislative Republicans are vowing a stormy fight over it in the remaining time before midnight Wednesday, when the 2021 regular legislative session is scheduled for adjournment.

He said in a phone interview Tuesday that his wife has been an hourly worker at the Curaleaf production facility in Simsbury for more than a year. He said he had nothing to do with her getting a job there, and her employment there had no bearing on his vote.

“I didn’t think it was a conflict of interest, whatsoever,” said Witkos, so he didn’t feel he needed to check with state ethics officials — as he did a few years ago when he was on a committee that oversees energy and took a job with Eversource. (Ethics officials okayed his hiring by the utility.)

Witkos said his vote Tuesday was consistent with his position 19 years ago, when as a House member he introduced an unsuccessful bill to decriminalize marijuana.

The income that Esther Witkos received from Curaleaf — which operates one of the four state-licensed facilities where cannabis is grown and processed — appeared on a newly filed “statement of financial interests for 2020″ that state officials had to file by May 3 with the Office of State Ethics.

The state financial interest form requires no detail as to amounts of income or whether it’s derived from a full-time or part-time employment position.

All it says, in the case of Witkos, is that there was income in the form of “salary/wages” for his “spouse,” and the source was “Curaleaf.”

His vote is a situation that some would consider a conflict of interest that would require him to abstain or make a public declaration of his wife’s employment, but the state statutes known as the Code of Ethics for Public Officials leave lawmakers a lot of wiggle room in cases like this. In similar situations in the past, lawmakers who’ve voted on measures affecting their families haven’t gotten in trouble because of how much leeway is written into the law.

For example, here is what the ethics office’s guidebook for legislators says in giving an example about cases like this:

  • “A legislator’s spouse is employed by Company X, but is not a director, officer, owner, etc., meaning that Company X is not a business with which the legislator is ‘associated.’ Thus, the legislator may take official action on legislation that will impact the spouse’s employer, provided that there will be no direct financial impact on the legislator’s spouse, and that the employer did not improperly influence the legislator.”

The income for Esther Witkos from Curaleaf was new in 2020; on the senator’s 2019 report, he listed income for his spouse from a funeral home.

Curaleaf’s large production facility is in Simsbury, and it has four locations around the state — Hartford, Groton, Stamford and Milford — where medical marijuana can be purchased by holders of an authorized medical marijuana card, if they have registered at that location.

The cannabis bill that passed in the Senate includes a section that allows medical marijuana growers — with authorization from the state — to expand into the new recreational market. They must pay a “conversion fee” of $1.5 million or $3 million, depending on whether or not they are participating in an “equity joint venture” that is at least 50% owned by “social equity applicants” who meet income thresholds and are residents of an area with unemployment rates or drug conviction rates of more than 10%. The producers must also contribute $500,000 to a program to assist those applicants with applying for licenses.

The language from the ethics guidebook item, quoted above, was based on the ethics agency’s Advisory Opinion No. 93-4, which had to do with former state Sen. Catherine Cook’s husband, Roger Cook, who was vice president of E.G. & G. WASC, Inc. a defense subcontractor.

Cook, the senator, was a member of the legislative commerce committee, and she asked if it was permissible to vote on bills which deal with manufacturing assistance and defense diversification. She stated that she and her husband held only a small number of shares of stock in the company.

The opinion said: “E.G. & G. WASC, Inc. is not a business with which the Senator is associated, for purposes of the Code, since neither she nor her spouse hold five percent or more of the total outstanding stock and Mr. Cook is neither a director nor one of the requisite officers. In this matter, Mr. Cook’s employer may well benefit from the passage of any favorable defense or manufacturing assistance bills; but, in general, such legislation would not have any direct financial impact on either Senator Cook or her spouse.”

“The Commission has previously ruled that the Code does not specifically prohibit a public official from taking official action which would benefit one’s employer, unless the employer had improperly influenced the legislator.”

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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