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Pot Applicant Accuses Calif. Mayor of Demanding Bribe; City Rebukes Claims

By Willis Jacobson Oct 28, 2020
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Willis Jacobson is an award-winning journalist whose career has spanned both coasts. Now based on the Central Coast of California, he has covered cannabis news and issues since 2015.
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Willis Jacobson is an award-winning journalist whose career has spanned both coasts. Now based on the Central Coast of California, he has covered cannabis news and issues since 2015.
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A man who had his application for a cannabis testing lab denied by a Southern California city has accused the city’s mayor of conspiring with other officials to reject his bid only after he refused to pay a $350,000 bribe. The mayor and other city officials strongly rebuked the allegations.

Jose Mendoza filed a 96-page complaint (read it here) in California state court that includes a laundry list of accusations against the city of Maywood, a Los Angeles suburb; Maywood Mayor Eddie De La Riva; and several other city representatives. Among 15 separate charges, the suit accuses the defendants of civil conspiracy, civil racketeering, attempted civil extortion, fraudulent misrepresentation and defamation.

The suit alleges that Mendoza spent a year, from September 2018 to September 2019, successfully navigating Maywood’s permitting process with an eye on opening an LA Labs testing facility in the city. It was in early September 2019, according to the suit, that “to Mendoza’s astonishment” he was approached while performing yardwork in front of his home by an unknown man who told him, “We need $350,000 to move your project forward.”

“The man indicated by pointing toward a black Honda Accord without plates across the street,” the suit states. “The tinted window of the car rolled down and Mendoza recognized the face of Mayor Eddie De La Riva.”

Mendoza claims he waved at De La Riva, but De La Riva did not wave back. It was at that moment, the suit states, Mendoza realized “he had just been given a demand for money.”

The suit claims Mendoza became “confused, worried and stressed” after that encounter. Just days later, and after not paying the money he alleges was demanded of him, Mendoza said he was informed by the Maywood city clerk that his testing lab application had been denied. 

The denial, Mendoza claims, was based on issues like lack of parking and that a wrought-iron gate was too noisy, but Mendoza suspected that city officials were actively trying to shut him out. As evidence of that effort, the suit states that city council members and other officials falsely accused Mendoza of intimidating neighboring businesses, though Mendoza claims he only approached the neighboring business owners to inform them of his plans and field any concerns.

De La Riva and Maywood City Manager Jennifer Vasquez vigorously pushed back against Mendoza’s allegations in a statement released Wednesday by Vasquez’s office. The statement referred to the suit as a “baseless … thinly veiled attempt to discredit the city by conjuring up allegations about tales of conspiracy.”

De La Riva, within the city’s statement, called the allegations “outlandish.”

“As an elected official, I take personal offense to the claims he is making that attack my integrity and that of my colleagues over a decision made at a public hearing regarding his application for a conditional use permit for his business,” De La Riva said. “We have made great strides in improving our City in the last several years and we will not let this deter us from the good work the City is doing for its residents and businesses.”

In the suit, Mendoza claims that De La Riva and other city leaders were originally on board with his plans and had given him only positive feedback. In August 2019, according to the suit, Mendoza’s application scored an 88%, which was well above the 80% minimum to pass. The suit alleges city staffers commented that Mendoza’s score “was one of the highest scores ever received.”

Mendoza said the situation deteriorated in the ensuing weeks. 

In early September 2019, the suit alleges, Maywood Planning Commissioner Reyna Mendez told the owner of a business located near the proposed LA Labs facility that Mendoza was planning to open a dispensary – not a testing lab – and attempted to get that business owner to speak out against Mendoza’s plan at a planning commission meeting.

Although city staff recommended moving forward with licensing, Mendoza claims Mendez – who was also named as a defendant in the suit – pushed back the planning commission’s decision on grounds that neighboring businesses were concerned with LA Labs.

Mendoza said he received his first notice of denial on Sept. 16, 2019. Despite that denial, Mendoza went to a meeting of the Maywood planning commission the following day to address concerns that had previously been raised by commissioners. His suit claims the commission instead brought up several new concerns before upholding his previous denial.

After it was suggested by the commission that neighbors of the proposed LA Labs facility may be uncomfortable with Mendoza’s plans, Mendoza said he presented the commission with a list of signatures of support that he had gathered while meeting the neighbors.

“For his effort, Mendoza was accused by the commission of intimidating the business owners to obtain the signatures,” the suit states. “The commission members additionally questioned the veracity of the signatures presented by Mendoza, indicating they may not be [legitimate].”

The denial of a permit for Mendoza was later upheld by the Maywood City Council.

Mendoza said the defendants’ “pre-textual denial” has caused him to lose “a considerable amount of money and time.” He claims in the suit that he is still paying on a five-year rental agreement for a property that continues to remain empty.

Further, Mendoza alleges the defendants tarnished his name throughout the city.

The suit calls for a jury trial.

Vasquez, the Maywood city manager, said the city would fight the claims.

“This lawsuit is an attempt by the Plaintiff to circumvent the process as they have already filed a writ of mandate contesting the decision of the City Council,” Vasquez said. “It is an attempt to scandalize what is simply a denial of Plaintiff’s application for a conditional use permit.”

Mendoza is represented by a group of attorneys with the Southern California office of Darren Richie Esq. They did not immediately respond Wednesday to a message seeking comment.

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