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Undue influence: SLO County grapples with the fallout from the Helios Dayspring/Adam Hill bribery scandal 

click to enlarge CORRUPTED SLO County Democrats struggle to address bribery allegations against a longtime leader who committed suicide.

Cover Illustration From Adobe Stock

CORRUPTED SLO County Democrats struggle to address bribery allegations against a longtime leader who committed suicide.

When news broke last month about the explosive charges that late San Luis Obispo County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill took bribes from local cannabis magnate Helios Dayspring, SLO County Democratic Party chair Rita Casaverde's instinct was to issue a swift public statement condemning Hill's alleged misconduct.

But after checking in with members of the party, Casaverde said she could feel the devastation of many local Democrats and progressives, some of whom were close with Hill and still grieving his suicide of last year. So she held off on a statement.

"The nature of the news, on top of the confusion of how we lost him, ... I think for people who might not have [known him], it's pretty black and white: He did that, and it's bad," Casaverde said. "But when you add that human element to it, it's just a really hard thing to think about."

Instead, Casaverde addressed the scandal internally at the SLO County Democratic Party Central Committee's monthly meeting on Aug. 9. According to a written statement that she said paraphrased what she said that night, Casaverde asked party members to report any information they might have about the corruption case to the authorities.

Then she added: "If someone here has participated in any illegal activity related to any campaign, race, or elected official, please leave. Leave the party. This is not the party for you."

"If anyone thinks that they are helping the mission of the party by enabling or engaging in those types of activities, they're wrong. We don't need this," her statement continued. "This is a distraction from our mission, and it sets us back."

Casaverde, who's served as party chair since April 2020, said the audience listened quietly to her words and that members looked "disappointed and shocked."

"We could see it in their faces," she said.

On July 28, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a felony plea deal with Dayspring that detailed a bribery scheme with Hill, the attempted bribery of former Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals, and $3.4 million in tax evasion.

In exchange for Hill casting votes favorable to Dayspring and his local cannabis company, Natural Healing Center, and sharing "non-public" county cannabis information with him, Dayspring gave Hill $32,000 in mostly cash payments between 2016 and 2019, according to the guilty plea.

In the wake of the announcement, the spotlight has turned on to local Democrats, who backed Hill throughout his controversy-filled tenure as county supervisor. The party took criticism for its slow response to the recently alleged misconduct. Questions swirl about whether any other party leaders may have been complicit or involved in the scheme.

One Democratic leader under the spotlight is Nick Andre, co-founder of the SLO Progressives Club with SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon. From at least 2019 until September 2020, Andre worked alongside Dayspring as chief operating officer for Natural Healing Center. Andre declined to comment for this story.

In the DOJ plea agreement, the allegations reference two unnamed parties: Employee 1 and Business Partner 1. Both allegedly courted and lobbied Hill at private dinners and in text messages. Only Business Partner 1 is accused of engaging in bribery. The DOJ said on July 28 that the federal investigation into "public corruption in SLO County" is ongoing.

Casaverde said she didn't know Hill personally but recognized that the longtime supervisor from 2009 to 2020 held an influential role in local progressive politics and earned repeated endorsements from the SLO County Democratic Party.

"That's why it was important to address it with our voting members, letting them know it's not acceptable. We have no patience for it," Casaverde said.

A volatile figure on the political scene for years, Hill often alienated even allies with his bombastic and unpredictable personality. But his public struggle with depression drew sympathy from many in the party and community, Casaverde said.

"I think a lot of people knew he was struggling. But no one really knew the details of how bad it was," Casaverde said. "For many months before we lost him, there were just mixed feelings with people who might've had experience with his personality in the past, but people who also felt bad for what he was going through."

Industry in flux

Dayspring's bribery revelations came as less of a shock to members of the SLO County cannabis industry. The 35-year-old Morro Bay native had a reputation as cutthroat and unscrupulous, and Hill was never shy to press the industry for campaign donations, sources said.

"Adam was not very subtle," said Sean Donahoe, a cannabis industry consultant whose work in SLO County dates back to cannabis legalization. "He would occasionally remind me there was an election fundraiser coming up, and sometimes he wasn't too subtle about that. He always said it in his way that everyone's familiar with: 'I'm the guy here on your side helping you out. Throw me a bone.'"

In 2016, Hill made headlines for using similar tactics in a series of leaked emails that showed him chiding local business and community leaders for not sufficiently supporting his reelection campaign.

Donahoe said that politicians on both sides of the aisle in SLO County tend to use exaggerated rhetoric to rev up political support. In the case of cannabis, Hill sold himself as the supervisor who could stop a conservative Board of Supervisors from enacting restrictions on the industry.

"One of the pathologies of SLO County partisan politics on either side is the promotion of throwing red meat to the masses to try to stimulate some sort of fervor for political support," Donahoe said.

click to enlarge PLEADING GUILTY Helios Dayspring, pictured, lobbies the SLO County Board of Supervisors at a meeting in 2019. Dayspring, founder of Natural Healing Center, pleaded guilty last month to bribing late 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill between 2016 and 2019. - SCREENSHOT FROM SLO COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS MEETING
  • Screenshot From SLO County Board Of Supervisors Meeting
  • PLEADING GUILTY Helios Dayspring, pictured, lobbies the SLO County Board of Supervisors at a meeting in 2019. Dayspring, founder of Natural Healing Center, pleaded guilty last month to bribing late 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill between 2016 and 2019.

In the aftermath of the DOJ announcement, much remains murky. While Dayspring transferred most of his business interests to longtime girlfriend Valnette Garcia, state records show he still has nine active state cannabis licenses under his name. Garcia has close to 50.

The California Department of Cannabis Control (DCC), which regulates the industry, said it couldn't comment on the case or whether the state licenses for Natural Healing Center and its subsidiaries in SLO County are in jeopardy.

"When the DCC receives information that contains allegations against a licensee, a full investigation of the facts and circumstances of the situation is completed to determine the action needed," the DCC told New Times in a statement. "DCC is strongly committed to ensuring fairness and equitable opportunity for all businesses in the cannabis market, including by rooting out bad actors and preventing improper behaviors."

Locally, SLO County and the three cities in which Dayspring was awarded some of the few available dispensary permits are conducting internal reviews of their operations and cannabis programs. The agencies say those are ongoing.

In addition, Dayspring and Garcia continue to fight a civil lawsuit filed in 2020 by a top Natural Healing Center investor, who alleged that Dayspring siphoned company funds to fend off investigators and committed fraud. Recent court records show that the parties may be nearing a settlement in the case.

Meanwhile, the DOJ's criminal investigation continues.

Donahoe said he wouldn't be surprised if more wrongdoing is announced in the coming months.

"He's [Dayspring's] admitted to those [charges]. It's possible he did more than that," Donahoe said. "The big question in the ongoing investigation is, he's cooperating, but are other people cooperating as well?" Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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