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Judge backs away from pot business

Justice of the Peace Joe Charter said Tuesday said he is no longer interested in running a Medford marijuana store embroiled in a lawsuit against former Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal.

"I'm not going to venture into that," Charter said. "You have to be careful about actual or perceived conflicts of interest."

Charter, who earns $81,000 a year as an elected judge, is one of five listed in Jackson County Circuit Court documents as candidates for the independent manager position at American Cannabis Co. at 2131 West Main St. Charter said he provided his resume to lawyers involved in the Breidenthal suit.

American Cannabis, which has never opened for business, is tied up in a lawsuit filed by Greg Allen as well as Lawrence and Mary Nelson of Arizona against Breidenthal, alleging he defrauded them of investment money. Breidenthal has also filed his own counterclaim against Allen and the Nelsons alleging his professional reputation was damaged.

Breidenthal is currently under investigation by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for allegedly seeking financial gain for his cannabis businesses while still a county commissioner. His term ended in January after he was defeated in the Republican primary by Bob Strosser.

Breidenthal is also still under investigation for a previous ethics complaint that relates to a special account set up for his bid on the board of the Western Interstate Region, a land-use reform group.

Both sides in the Breidenthal cannabis company lawsuit have agreed to appoint an independent manager to operate the store until the case is settled, but have issued various motions describing the difficulty in choosing the right person because of conflicts of interest.

In a motion filed by Ashland attorney Chris Hearn, who represents Allen, Hearn stated, "Of defendant's (Breidenthal's) three proposed independent managers, only Joe Charter does not appear to have a conflict."

Hearn no longer represents the Nelsons in the suit after the Oregon State Bar general counsel found a potential conflict in representing both the Nelsons and Allen, based on the counterclaims raised by Breidenthal.

Charter said he talked briefly with Breidenthal in April about the independent manager position, but changed his mind when he read a Los Angeles Times article on April 20. The article described the California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions urging judges to refrain from any interest in marijuana businesses, partially because of the conflict between state and federal law.

The opinion states, "An interest in a marijuana enterprise may also create an appearance of impropriety and cast doubt on a judge’s ability to act impartially."

While the committee's opinion applies to California specifically, Charter said the potential ethical dilemma gave him cause for concern about becoming involved with a marijuana business.

Charter said he thought the issue of becoming an independent manager was moot because he hadn't heard back from the lawyers and hadn't had any more conversations with Breidenthal.

He said that when he became aware Tuesday that there was still an interest in him taking the position, he decided he should alert the lawyers involved as well as Jackson County Circuit Judge Ron Grensky that he is no longer interested.

As justice of the peace, Charter said, he usually deals with traffic and municipal code issues, and only occasionally with traffic offenses involving marijuana.

Charter has been justice of the peace since 2004 and has dealt with landlord-tenant disputes and small-claims cases. He has been a bankruptcy trustee from 2011-2016, according to the resume that was included in court documents.

Charter said he doesn't consider Breidenthal a friend but rather a colleague whom he would meet from time to time when Breidenthal was commissioner.

Another applicant for the independent manager position is Michael Welch, owner of Siskiyou Medical Supply and Puff's Smoke Shop, both in Ashland.

Welch is the prime candidate, according to a motion filed on April 11 by John Howry, Breidenthal's attorney.

"Given the lack of trust between defendants and plaintiffs the manager needs to be able to operate the store with as little contact with the parties as possible," Howry stated. He cited Welch's experience running a dispensary and familiarity with rules of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Health Authority.

Welch, however, formerly was president of ANM, a Medford marijuana facility that had prepared an employment agreement to hire Breidenthal as director of legislative affairs, with an annual salary of $96,000. The agreement, which was included in court documents, wasn't signed by either Breidenthal or Andreas Met, chief operating officer of ANM.

In a motion filed on April 29 with Circuit Court, Hearn stated that Welch has a conflict of interest because of his affiliation with ANM and shouldn't be considered for the independent manager position.

Welch said he resigned from ANM prior to negotiations with Breidenthal, and he said he doesn't believe he has any conflict of interest.

"That's misinformation," Welch said. "I was already tendering my resignation. I've been resigned since February."

He said he knows Breidenthal but doesn't consider him a friend.

Welch also operates The Wicked Flower Shoppe in Medford. If he were selected to run American Cannabis, Welch said he would manage three different marijuana businesses in the valley.

"My job is to run dispensaries — to do what I'm good at," Welch said.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Judge Joe Charter