Gov. Tina Kotek talks to the Oregon Capital Chronicle in the ceremonial office of the state library in Salem on May 17, 2023. A tort claim accuses her of misusing her power to oust the executive director of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. (Michael Romanos/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Gov. Tina Kotek faced pressure from recovery advocates to fire the head of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission for its support of the alcohol industry.
Mike Marshall, executive director of Portland-based Oregon Recovers, told the Capital Chronicle on Tuesday that he asked Kotek last October and repeated the request in December after Kotek was elected to get rid of Steve Marks, then executive director of the liquor and cannabis agency.
“Most everyone in the public health field wanted Steve Marks to go,” Marshall said in a release, accusing Marks of doing little during his tenure to stem a rise in alcohol addiction in Oregon. “Never once during those 13 years did he convene a conversation, let alone take action, to reduce alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations. Instead, he defied the OLCC’s legislative mandate under the Liquor Control Act to protect Oregonians, and instead turned the OLCC into a state agency promoting liquor consumption.”
In an email with the Capital Chronicle, Marshall said he spoke to Kotek in mid-October after a fundraiser in his home for her and then in December met with one of her aides and repeated the message that Marks should be fired.
“Nothing was in writing,” wrote Marshall while traveling on a plane.
His statements come in the wake of Marks’ notice that he intends to sue the state over his ousting. His lawyer sent a notice to the Department of Administrative Services on Friday, saying that he intends to seek damages for his firing. The letter, first covered by Willamette Week, said that Kotek’s chief of staff and Berri Leslie, head of the Department of Administrative Services, told Marks at the end of January that Kotek wanted him out. Marks resigned in February after the Attorney General’s office warned him that if he didn’t step down immediately, the agency would consider his status at its meeting Feb. 15.
Marks stepped down Feb. 13.
“Governor Kotek did not provide – and she still has not provided – any reason for having pushed Marks out of his position, and Marks was provided no other notice or opportunity to contest the reasons for that action,” the letter said.
The letter said he was forced out because the owner of a large cannabis chain, Rosa Cazares, wanted him gone. Cazares, co-owner of the La Mota cannabis chain, opposed the agency’s regulation of the cannabis industry under Marks, the letter said.
In 2018, the liquor and cannabis agency cited a cannabis company linked to Cazares for mishandling nearly 150 pounds of marijuana, potentially allowing it to be diverted to the black market, the letter said. Shortly before resolving the dispute, Cazares and her partner Aaron Mitchell poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of top Democratic officials, the letter said. Kotek and Shemia Fagan, who was elected secretary of state, were among the beneficiaries. Fagan resigned earlier this year as secretary of state over a lucrative moonlighting job she obtained through Cazares.
The letter claims that Cazares used those campaign contributions as “leverage to have Marks pushed out of office when his work concerning Oregon’s cannabis industry stood in her way.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative Services said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation, and Kotek’s office also declined to comment on the letter, citing the same reason. Kotek has said his ouster had nothing to do with Cazares or Mitchell and that she simply wanted new leadership, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive.
In his release, Marshall said he pressured Kotek to get rid of Marks for supporting the alcohol industry and doing little to stem Oregon’s alcohol addiction crisis. In 2019, excessive alcohol consumption cost the state nearly $5 billion, according to a report by ECONorthwest. And in 2020, alcohol-related deaths spiked to 50 deaths per 100,000, according to the latest Oregon Health Authority data.
Marshall said that under Marks the agency worked to bolster the alcohol industry rather than protect public health. His release noted that the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission’s stems from the Oregon Liquor Control Act, which aims to prevent alcohol addiction, promote moderation and protect the safety, welfare and health of Oregonians.
“Only after all three of these are met is it also the policy of the state to encourage the development of industry,” the release said. “Yet under Steve Marks’ leadership, the OLCC rewrote their mission statement in direct defiance of its legislative mandate, to read: ‘OLCC’s mission is to support businesses, public safety, and community livability through education and the enforcement of liquor and marijuana laws.’”
“This means the OLCC’s current mission, which leads with supporting businesses and fails to mention preventing abuses or protecting health, is out of compliance with the law,” the release said.
Marks’ resignation coincided with an investigation into a scandal involving Marks and other agency leaders who used their influence to obtain bottles of exclusive bourbon. Kotek said that the scandal, too, had nothing to do with his ouster.
Marks’ attorney William Gary, of the Eugene-based Harrang Long law firm, said the former liquor and cannabis director suffered “substantial economic and noneconomic damages” as a result of his ouster.
The letter said Marks may sue the state over defamation, wrongful termination, federal civil rights protections, laws against a misuse of power for personal gain and provisions under Oregon’s employment laws, including whistleblower protections. It does not specify how much Marks will seek in damages.
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