AZ: Accusations Detailed In Phoenix Medical-Marijuana Dispensary Cases

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawthorne

Attorneys have hurled allegations of questionable tactics against well-connected lobbyists and community activists involved in Phoenix medical-marijuana cases.

Since March, Phoenix’s Board of Adjustment — composed of seven volunteers who hear zoning appeals — has heard three medical-marijuana facility appeals. It has overturned city hearing-officer decisions in each case.

The same four people — two former city staffers, a prominent Phoenix attorney and another individual with family political ties — were involved with the winning side in nearly all of the appeals.

The same individuals being involved — along with duplicated paperwork, false addresses and phone numbers, signature discrepancies and other unusual circumstances — prompted attorneys representing the impacted dispensaries to question the validity of the opposition.

Here is a more detailed look at the cases.

Appeal similarities

An Arizona Republic review of public documents and public testimony from Board of Adjustment meetings found similarities among four recent appeals.

Two of the appeals heard by the Board of Adjustment, and another scheduled for May 11, were filed by people claiming to be nearby residents disgruntled with a hearing officer’s decision to approve the facilities. All three proposed facilities were in west Phoenix, but miles apart.

The other appeal came from a medical-marijuana business after a hearing officer denied its application for a dispensary in north-central Phoenix.

The neighborhood-initiated appeals:

• All three appeals contain nearly identical language describing why the facilities should be denied.

• Lobbyists Joe Villasenor and Layla Ressler — who are in a relationship — paid the $2,760 for each of the three appeals.

• Ressler’s uncle was the appellant in one of the cases.

• Two other appeals listed the same phone number but different appellant names. That phone number belongs to Alexia Nunez, who was not one of the appellants.

• Alexia Nunez collected signatures of support for the appeal that Ressler’s uncle filed, according to Villasenor.

• A private investigator one dispensary hired told the Board of Adjustment that he couldn’t find any valid signatures, though Villasenor said he verified the petitions.

• Attorney Nick Wood represented all three appellants, although Wood backed out of one of the cases later because of a conflict.

The Board of Adjustment sided with the appellants in the two appeals that have come before it, overturning the hearing officers’ recommendations.

The dispensary-initiated appeal:

• According to an email from city staff, Villasenor submitted paperwork on behalf of the dispensary that wanted to appeal the hearing officer’s decision not to grant approvals to locate near 16th Street and Glendale Avenue.

• Villasenor denies this, despite multiple emails from city staff that say he was there when the appeal was submitted. He said he just ran into the person who submitted the appeal when he was at City Hall.

• The proposed dispensary hired Nunez, who told the Board of Adjustment she owns a business called Urban Petitions, to collect signatures of support for the dispensary. Opposing residents and their attorney alleged to the board that those signatures were fake.

The Board of Adjustment overturned the hearing officer’s decision, allowing the dispensary to open.

Inconsistent appeal signatures

In a memo submitted to the city ahead of the May Board of Adjustment meeting, Withey Morris, the law firm representing one of the challenged dispensaries, alleged the appeal was “fraudulently filed and forged” because it was paid for by a third-party lobbyist and the signatures don’t match throughout the appeal forms.

Villasenor said he paid the city fee to appeal the dispensary represented by Withey Morris and one other. He said he was not reimbursed or paid to do so. He said he paid for two appeals because he believed in the community’s concerns.

Villasenor said he had never met either of the appellants. He said that after the women signed the appeal forms, someone gave the forms to him to pay for and to submit to the city.

When he turned them in, the city asked him to sign the receipt forms for the appeals, which is why the signatures on the receipt forms don’t match the signatures on the appeal forms, he said.

The listed appellant in the appeal filed against Withey Morris’ client is a woman named Kelly Gutierrez. Her signature is legible on the appeal form, although a handwriting expert hired by Withey Morris said the handwriting did not match Gutierrez’s signature on her driver’s license.

On the appeal Villasenor paid for on behalf of an appellant named Reyna Caballero, the signature on the receipt form clearly says “Reyna Caballero” — though in noticeably different handwriting than her signature on the appeal form.

After The Republic pointed out this discrepancy, Villasenor changed his story. He said he did not sign that receipt, he only paid for the appeal. He said Caballero “authorized a representative to file and sign for her.”

Phone numbers, addresses questioned

According to state law, only a “person aggrieved” can file an appeal. The Board of Adjustment decides who qualifies as a “person aggrieved,” but typically they must live or own property nearby.

In its memo submitted to the city, Withey Morris questioned the legitimacy of the appellant, Gutierrez, because the address and phone number listed on her appeal do not appear to belong to her.

The law firm hired a private investigator. Gutierrez had at one point lived at the apartment complex listed on the appeal but had moved out in March 2017, according to the investigator’s report to the law firm.

The investigator said the phone number listed on Gutierrez’s appeal form was not registered to her. And it was the same phone number that another appellant, Caballero, listed on her appeal form.

The Arizona Republic reached out to Gutierrez’s attorney, Tim La Sota, who initially suggested The Republic come to Gutierrez’s apartment for an interview to prove that she did live at the address she had included. That offer was later rescinded, as was an invitation to meet Gutierrez in person.

In a phone interview, Gutierrez said she lived at the apartment with her boyfriend. La Sota provided a Cox bill with Gutierrez’s name and address, including the apartment number.

The Republic went to the apartment and spoke with two residents who said Gutierrez did not live there.

After The Republic relayed this to La Sota, he said the apartment complex has two units with the same numberand Gutierrez lives at the other one. When The Republic went to the other possible unit, a man answered the door and also said he had never heard of Gutierrez.

In an initial phone interview, when asked to confirm her phone number, Gutierrez gave the phone number that was listed on the appeal form.

In a follow-up phone interview a few days later, Gutierrez said that phone number did not actually belong to her but to her brother’s girlfriend, who helped her fill out the appeal.

That woman is Nunez — the same woman who’s been involved in all four appeals. Nunez referred questions to her attorney, who said Nunez denies any accusations of forgery.

The Republic could not reach Caballero. She provided two phone numbers on documents to the city. One belongs to Nunez, and the other is a non-working number.

Caballero also listed two different addresses on documents to the city. Documents sent to both addresses by the city were returned to sender.

Villasenor provided The Republic with Cox and Verizon statements that had Caballero’s name and the address as used in the appeal submitted to the city.

However, the address was for an apartment complex, and Villasenor would not provide a unit number to allow The Republic to verify her residency.