ATLANTA – New details in the FOX 5 I-Team investigation of the Georgia medical marijuana licensing process.
The CEO of one of only six companies to be selected for a license to grow and sell medical cannabis gave Governor Brian Kemp’s Leadership Committee $50,000 weeks after his company was awarded a license.
Last week it was showtime in Buckhead, as the audience flowed in, and the stage was set. But the stars here don’t sing or dance.
“You show up and tell us about your company,” said entrepreneur Paul Judge.
They talked business, startup business, and the lead actor in this entrepreneurial competition called Start Up Showdown is Paul Judge.
“Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not,” Judge told the audience.
PROPOSED LEGISLATION WOULD DRAMATICALLY ALTER GEORGIA MEDICAL CANNABIS PROGRAM
Judge is wealthy and well known. An Atlanta entrepreneurial rock star with several successful startup ventures already under his belt.
But, as he searched for new ventures in his Startup Showdown, he had already turned his eye to state of Georgia’s brand-new medical cannabis bid process.
Paul Judge took his show from Buckhead down to the capitol. His company was one of only six to be selected by a state commission to grow and sell medical marijuana in Georgia.
Judge was not new to the political process in Georgia. FOX 5 found he had a history of making donations to candidates dating back to 2013.
He contributed generally small amounts of money from $500 to $3,600 to well-known Democrats, including Stacey Abrams.
But the I-Team investigation found when legislature passed the Georgia’s Hope Act, setting the stage for newly formed companies to grow and sell medical marijuana, Judge immediately shifted his political contributions from Democrat to Republican.
FOX 5 I-TEAM NOT ALLOWED TO ATTEND MEDICAL MARIJUANA PROTEST PRE-HEARING
One month after the passage of the medical marijuana bill, Judge incorporated TheraTrue, a medical cannabis company.
And, then he dramatically increased the amount of his political donations and changed from giving to Democrats to Republicans.
Within three months, he contributed $25,000 each to two different Republican committees: Advance Georgia and Georgia House Republican Trust. Those donations totaled $50,000.
Why is that important? Georgia’s Republican Governor, Lt. governor and Speaker of the House selected every single member of the Access to Medical Marijuana Commission who were tasked with the job of handpicked the winning proposals.
“It’s influence peddling,” said Marc Hershovitz.
Hershovitz is an attorney who has worked in the political world for decades. He has worked for a Democratic governor and represented candidates, campaigns, and political interest groups.
He says the $50,000 in total contributions to Republican committees from a man whose company is preparing a proposal to win a medical marijuana license – just looks bad.
“They are being given to slush funds for politicians. That looks like pay to play,” Hershovitz told us.
Then, some six weeks after Paul Judge’s company, TheraTrue, was selected as one of only six winners for a lucrative license, Paul Judge contributed another $50,000. This time he gave it directly to Governor Brian Kemp’s Leadership committee.
“I think that the pay to play contributions look horrible whether anybody has spoken to each other or not,” said Beth Rotman.
KEY GEORGIA LEGISLATOR WANTS TO REEXAMINE MEDICAL MARIJUANA BIDS
Rotman is director of money in politics and ethics for Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group in Washington D.C.
She says she doesn’t know who or what convinced Paul Judge to make a total of $100,000 in campaign contributions to three different Republican committees.
She says the problem lies with the Georgia legislature. It passed a law that allowed Brian Kemp and only a handful of other candidates, to accept unlimited amounts of money through these Leadership committees.
“It doesn’t look good to have some people able to give unlimited sums and some people take unlimited funds and then say, don’t worry. Trust us. I represent all of you equally. It just doesn’t pass the sniff test.,” said Rotman.
CRITICS QUESTION WHY GEORGIA ACCESS TO MEDICAL CANNABIS COMMISSION IS EXEMPT FROM OPEN RECORDS
Governor Kemp’s spokesperson wrote us to say the medical marijuana license decisions were made by the medical cannabis commission “with no input from the Governor’s Office whatsoever.”
And he wrote that Paul Judge’s $50,000 contribution – made a month and a half after he was awarded a license “had no bearing on TheraTrue being chosen.”
Any accusation to the contrary is “ridiculous, completely false,” the spokesman wrote.
Paul Judge emailed to say he gave “personal contributions” not connected to any company” or “Georgia’s medical cannabis licensing process.”
Kemp’s Leadership Committee reported raising $2,345,428.49 in its very first filing, with individual contributions as high as $250,000.
“It looks like corruption. It looks like pay to play.” (All in all it does not look good?) “No,” said Hershovitz.
WATCH: FOX 5 NEWS LIVE COVERAGE