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Pubdate: Fri, 21 Sep 2018 Source: Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) Copyright: 2018 Sun-Sentinel Company Website: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/159 Author: Dan Sweeney DOZENS OF POLITICAL CANDIDATES COULD LOSE BANK ACCOUNTS OVER MEDICAL MARIJUANA INDUSTRY DONATIONS More than 80 state legislative or statewide campaigns and campaign committees have accepted some $800,000 from the medical marijuana industry during the 2018 election cycle, according to a review of campaign finance records by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. That could mean the closure of accounts and a scramble to find a place to deposit campaign funds. Wells Fargo decided to close the campaign account of Democratic Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried after she accepted industry money. She then opened an account with BB&T, which also promptly closed it. She now banks with Florida Community Bank. In the worst-case scenario, campaigns could be forced to close accounts or refund money they got from the medical marijuana industry. Among those who could be affected: Republican governor candidate Ron DeSantis, Republican agriculture commissioner candidate Matt Caldwell, incumbent Republican chief financial officer Jimmy Patronis, Republican attorney general candidate Ashley Moody and Democratic attorney general candidate Sean Shaw. With less than two months until Election Day and some mail-in ballots being sent out this week, that would mean a loss of time and effort in getting their messages out to voters at a critical time in the election season. The largest share of the campaigns that accept marijuana money banked at SunTrust, with 27 accounts there. A SunTrust representative said that whether to close an account is something the bank would decide "on a case-by-case basis." "We adhere to all state and federal laws relating to the services we offer to clients," said SunTrust spokesman Mike McCoy. "We don't comment on individual client relationships." Dealing with marijuana money on a case-by-case basis rather than having a hard-and-fast rule appears to be the norm among banks contacted by the Sun Sentinel. Federally chartered banks cannot accept profits from the sale of illegal drugs -- and marijuana continues to be illegal at the federal level. "No one will tell you how to do it or how not to do it because it's against federal law. aE& It's going to be up to each bank's risk appetite," said Anthony DiMarco, vice president of government affairs for the Florida Bankers Association. "What extent is the ripple far enough away from the stone going in the pond that it's not considered a marijuana transaction? I'm not aware of that, and no association I know is aware of that either." TALLAHASSEE -- Wells Fargo required Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, to move her campaign account funds to a different bank because of her advocacy and interaction with the medical marijuana industry. For Wells Fargo and BB&T, those ripples extend into medical marijuana businesses donating to political campaigns. The big questions are whether those banks will apply this rule across the board and whether other banks will follow suit. "As a U.S. bank that is federally regulated, we have to comply with federal law," said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Michelle Palomino. "In instances where state laws may differ, it is Wells Fargo's policy not to knowingly bank or provide services to marijuana businesses or activities clearly related to those businesses." Palomino said the bank takes action "if we become aware of marijuana money going into any account." Under Florida law, legislative campaigns can only receive a maximum of $1,000 per election from an individual or corporation, $3,000 for the statewide offices of governor, agriculture commissioner, attorney general and chief financial officer. But candidates can create committees that can accept unlimited donations, and most do so. Fried has been one of the top beneficiaries of such money. Her campaign has received at least $9,000 from the industry, while her committee, Florida Consumers First, has received at least $42,000. But Fried is not the only candidate with both a Wells Fargo account and marijuana money in the bank. Republican state Reps. Byron Donalds and Bob Rommel, both of Naples, and Rene Plasencia, of Orlando, all have campaign accounts with Wells Fargo and have received at least $1,000 from players in the industry. Wells Fargo's decision to drop an account connected to a state candidate who supports medical marijuana could cost the bank more business. A Broward commissioner says the county should stop doing business with Wells Fargo and plans to bring up the issue at the Sept. 13 meeting. "[Fried] may have been flagged given the amount of donations and the fact that it was a statewide candidate," said Brett Doster, a political consultant for Rommel, whose campaign took $1,000 from George Hackney, one of the few nurseries in Florida with a license to grow marijuana. "To my knowledge, unless there was a form letter that we missed, the campaign has not been contacted in any way, shape or form by Wells Fargo." Donalds and Plasencia did not return calls for comment. None of the banks would comment on individual account holders. Although federally chartered banks generally don't do business with the legal marijuana industry because of the severe penalties involved in allowing deposit of drug money, it's unusual for a bank to target a political campaign under the rules. Ben Pollara, the campaign manager for Fried who previously ran the campaign to get medical marijuana in the Florida Constitution, was unaware of any other candidate in the country whose campaign account had been closed due to political donations from the medical marijuana industry. If things break the Democrats' way in November, the Florida cabinet could feature two South Florida residents. Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, of Parkland, is running for chief financial officer, and the Democratic primary for agriculture commissioner features three South Florida residents -- Fort... Banks can also be chartered by the state, but rules for Florida-chartered banks dealing in medical marijuana money are ambiguous. "All these banks are skittish on marijuana banking," DiMarco said. "Your potential regulatory liability is so high, even if you follow everything, you're not out of the woods." Like Wells Fargo, BB&T also closed Fried's account. Of the 84 campaigns and committees the Sun Sentinel found had taken medical marijuana money this election cycle, only one other -- that of state House candidate Ana Maria Rodriguez in Miami -- banked with BB&T. "While BB&T has no position on the issue of marijuana or the ongoing discussion regarding its legalization, we must continue to abide by all applicable laws and regulations as a federally regulated financial institution," said BB&T spokesman Brian Davis. "While many states have enacted changes, federal law prohibits the use, sale and possession of all forms of cannabis in the United States." TALLAHASSEE -- The job might be obscure, but it holds significant power: the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees gun permits, fields consumer complaints, regulates livestock, inspects gas pumps and rollercoasters and more. Fried believes she has a two-part solution for Florida. "Give the green light to state-chartered banks so that if you decided to bank with one of the marijuana companies, we will protect you if anything happens at the federal level," she said. "Also, create a state bank that is housed underneath the chief financial officer. aE& It wouldn't be doing investments or loans. It's really just a depository where marijuana companies can house their capital, money that's going to investors, out to employees. It would also be an opportunity for doctors to have accounts, and patients to have accounts as well." Rather than deposits being guaranteed by the federal government, money would be insured by Florida's state government. Similar legislation is currently being debated in California. North Dakota is the only state that currently has a state bank whose deposits are guaranteed by state taxpayers, not the federal government. But that bank was largely designed for handling the deposits of state government and state agencies, not for marijuana. Because banks are skittish of marijuana money, dispensaries are largely cash-only businesses. The state bank Fried envisions would be able to issue patients debit cards to be used at dispensaries. Wells Fargo closed the account of Nikki Fried, candidate for agriculture commissioner, because she supports the use of marijuana for medical purposes and accepts donations from the marijuana industry. "It's very dangerous for a patient to walk into a dispensary and people around you know there's only one thing you're doing in there, buying products. So they know you have cash," she said. "It's a dangerous situation for the patient and a dangerous situation for the providers." Fried's idea, though, is predicated on her winning in November and convincing the state Legislature to go along. She faces state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, a state legislator with major backing from business, the agricultural industry and the deep pockets of his fellow lawmakers' political committees. Caldwell, like Fried, has called for moving the state's Office of Medical Marijuana Use from the Department of Health to the Department of Agriculture. Fried's ideas also depends on nothing getting done at the federal level. "First and foremost, [Congress] needs to pass that a state that has a recreational or medical program is exempt from that part of the Controlled Substances Act," she said. "But knowing how fast D.C. works, we obviously have to own this situation here in Florida."