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Attention on 'ghost owner' investigations as criminal cannabis case has tie to Tulsa law firm

Attention on 'ghost owner' investigations as criminal cannabis case has tie to Tulsa law firm

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Cannabis crime

The criminal case against an employee of a firm with hundreds of cannabis-related legal clients has an attorney encouraging medical marijuana business owners to look into whether they're actually operating legally.

The criminal case against an employee of a Tulsa law firm with hundreds of cannabis-related clients has drawn attention to investigations of “ghost owners,” with an attorney encouraging medical marijuana businesses to look into whether they’re actually operating legally.

Kathleen Windler has been charged in Garvin County District Court, accused along with her employer of knowingly fostering illegal medical marijuana operations. Attorneys for Windler, 68, refused comment.

She is accused of conspiring with others to cultivate 6,000 cannabis plants at a property in the 13700 block of North Garvin County County Road 3295 “without lawful authority” under the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority.

Windler’s LinkedIn profile identifies her as a legal secretary for Jones Brown, a law firm with an office in Tulsa.

The website for Jones Brown generated an error page as of Friday afternoon. Its last post on its Facebook page was made on June 2, and it has not yet responded publicly to the charge against its employee.

Court records show that the Garvin County Sheriff’s Office carried out two raids near Pauls Valley in April with Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control investigators that led to charges against Windler and four others: Guochuan Chen, Di Xu Fang, Dao Feng and Xueli Feng.

The criminal counts include marijuana cultivation, possession of a controlled substance without a tax stamp and — most notably — endeavoring to violate the U.S. Controlled Dangerous Substances Act. Cannabis, despite being legal in Oklahoma for medical use, remains classified as a Schedule I substance under federal law.

OBNDD spokesman Mark Woodward on Friday declined to comment on the case, which generated new attention this week after Tulsa attorney Ron Durbin posted about the situation on Facebook.

Durbin issued a call for medical marijuana businesses to ensure that their paperwork is in order.

“This is a big, big, big, big mess. And I think there’s gonna be a lot bigger story here,” Durbin said Friday afternoon. “Woodward and them are working on something much, much bigger.”

Woodward said the agency is in the process of “aggressively investigating” what he described as “fraudulent business structures” used to bring out-of-state interests to Oklahoma and circumvent the state’s two-year residency requirement for majority ownership in medical marijuana businesses.

“This is done by paying ‘ghost’ owners to put their name on licenses to claim ownership when they actually have no knowledge or true legal involvement in the grow operation,” Woodward said; he did not confirm the names of those being investigated.

Durbin said in excess of 450 licensed businesses could be affected by these investigations, based on a review of public OMMA business logs. He notes that the same email address associated with a law firm — with no apparent connection to Windler — is listed as OMMA’s point of contact for several hundred medical marijuana business operations.

He called that pattern a “red flag” and encouraged businesses to look into whether their legal counsel or industry consultant is listed as the point of contact for other OMMA licensees. Durbin, who represents OMMA-licensed businesses, said the standard is for the client to retain control of OMMA communications by providing the agency a direct email rather than the legal representation’s contact.

The OMMA remains part of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Asked about Durbin’s post on Friday, OSDH spokeswoman Rachel Klein said, “We are aware of, and continue to monitor, the situation and will take appropriate steps when necessary.”

Meeting minutes from the Rogers County Board of Commissioners show that Windler represented herself as at least a partial operator of a grow operation in Claremore that received approval for a certificate of compliance April 20. The Tulsa World asked Klein what steps are taken upon OMMA seeing the same name on multiple ownership records for applications.

“OMMA is always looking for ways to improve, and we are steadily moving in that direction,” Klein said of the license verification process. “In fact, we are currently implementing a Marijuana Enforcement Team as one way to assist in our efforts.”

Dao Feng, 45, and Windler, who are charged separately, had court appearances Friday morning. A judge ordered them to return for preliminary conferences in October and November, respectively, records show. A state investigator is listed as a prosecution witness, as are multiple Garvin County sheriff’s deputies.

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Framed by State Question 788, passed overwhelmingly by state voters three years ago, Oklahoma’s medical marijuana laws tried to favor small, local operators by limiting out-of-state ownership stakes, setting license fees low and putting no cap on the number of business licenses that could be issued.



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