The letter from a top Oregon regulator delivered good news: Tisha Siler had won approval of her application for a medical marijuana dispensary license.
Siler, a California pot grower, would be a “valuable asset” to Oregon, the letter gushed.
There was more. The notice offered, in essence, to hand over a total of seven dispensary licenses without bureaucratic hassle, giving Siler a competitive advantage in Oregon’s expanding cannabis trade.
Problem was the October 2014 letter, right down to its official-looking letterhead, was fake.
The letter plays a key role in a state investigation into Siler, CEO of Cannacea, a dispensary that opened last fall in Northeast Portland. The fraud inquiry is the first of its kind in Oregon’s marijuana industry.
Investigators also are examining the role of a company that Siler hired to help attract investors. The firm, Green Rush Consulting, worked with a felon previously convicted in a financial scam.
Cannacea soon had a group of backers who were drawn to the state’s new recreational pot trade and the tantalizing prospect of sharing in a booming market expected to generate an estimated $ 181.2 million this year.
That vision of wealth unraveled. Relationships soured between Siler, a self-described herbalist and holistic counselor, and many of those she hoped would bankroll her operation. The venture spiraled into nasty accusations, multiple court claims against Siler and her dispensary and demands from investors that she return their money, according to court documents and the state’s investigative file on the case released to The Oregonian/OregonLive in response to a public records request.
No one disputes that the letter was fake. But no one admits to writing it and state investigators can’t pinpoint the author.
A Canadian entrepreneur said he invested $ 168,000 after one of Siler’s associates showed the letter to him. At least three other investors had material that included false claims about the business; it’s unclear how many of them made investments based on the bogus information, the state’s investigation indicates.
Siler, 45, who sells marijuana products she billed as treatments for chronic illnesses, has denied wrongdoing.
She told investigators that the Green Rush consultant fabricated the letter without her knowledge. In a statement, Siler described herself as the unwitting victim of people who tried to exploit her vision so they could turn a quick profit.
“There are people getting into the cannabis industry who were essentially run out of their last business and trying to reinvent themselves as cannabis industry specialists,” Siler wrote.
Regulators in Washington and Colorado, the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, have so far seen only a few financial fraud investigations related to their new markets, but securities law experts caution that the pot industry, viewed by some as “the next big thing,” is ripe for deception.
The federal prohibition against marijuana keeps most banks from working with sellers and producers, in turn giving potential investors few avenues to assess a company, said Keith Ketterling, a Portland attorney whose practice focuses on securities law.
“It makes it really hard to look at these operations,” he said, “and figure out financially where they really are and what they have really done.”
Officials with Oregon’s Office of Consumer and Business Services declined to comment on their investigation into Siler and Green Rush Consulting. Speaking generally, however, agency spokesman Jake Sunderland advised pot investors to do their homework.
“Anytime there is a hot new industry, there is always room for bad actors to take advantage of the excitement around it,” Sunderland said. “The key thing is to be aware of things that sound too good to be true.”
In 2014, Siler said, she searched online for an adviser to help her raise money for a Portland dispensary. She found Green Rush Consulting, an Oakland, Calif.-based company that offers to help people get business licenses for marijuana enterprises around the country. (The company is not affiliated with the Portland-based Green Rush Advisory Group.)
Siler said she paid about $ 25,000 for its services, which included drafting materials to solicit investors.
Email records show Siler began working with David Jacobs at Green Rush. He identified himself on emails to potential investors as director of development services for the company.
In 2005, Jacobs was sentenced to prison by a federal judge in Oklahoma for wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for accessing victims’ bank and credit card information to obtain between $ 15,000 and $ 20,000, court records show. He was released in 2013, federal officials said. By August 2014, he was working with Siler, according to emails included in the state’s file.
It was Jacobs and later Canadian businessman Paul Mann, Siler told state regulators, who created materials for investors that promoted her unique reputation among state officials and the multiple medical marijuana dispensary licenses she would receive — elements that also ended up in the letter.
Those weren’t the only suspect claims. The materials were riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods, including academic degrees Siler never earned and prestigious honors she never received.
“Tisha Siler,” one of the documents noted, “can demonstrate a direct connection to state officials who want her working in their state.”
At one point, according to emails in the state’s file, Siler blasted Jacobs for including an award in investment materials that she said she didn’t receive.
She said she gave him only “basic information” about her work, though at least one resume she appears to have emailed to Jacobs includes an associate’s degree from Corpus Christi State University; the institution, since renamed Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that it has no record of anyone named Tisha Siler ever having attended.
At least four investors ended up giving money to Siler.
Brian Fox, a St. Louis investor, told a state investigator that he didn’t recall whether Siler or Green Rush gave him the information about Siler’s company, Cannacea.
Fox told the investigator that he was more inclined to invest if Siler had the licenses she claimed but said it wasn’t “a huge factor” in his decision. He said the letter strengthened his interest in the company, but he would have invested $ 50,000 anyway because Siler was a friend.
Another investor, Ryan Carstens of Sanibel, Florida, told investigators he decided to invest on the advice of Fox, who he said was a friend. He told investigators he wouldn’t have invested had he known the claims about Siler and Cannacea were false.
Fox and Carstens didn’t respond to telephone messages for comment.
A Pennsylvania woman, Wendy Baur, told investigators she met with Jacobs and Green Rush owner Zeta Ceti. She said Jacobs emailed what she described as “Cannacea documentation,” which she reviewed before she invested $ 45,000.
It’s not clear what information Jacobs emailed her and whether it contained the false information about Cannacea, but she told an investigator that she understood Siler was “tied into” Oregon’s marijuana program.
At some point in fall 2014, the Green Rush owner fired Jacobs, according to emails in the state’s file. Ceti then began working directly with Siler.
The emails indicate Siler played an active role in reviewing at least some versions of materials produced by Green Rush.
“Forwarding you back the draft (which is looking EXCELLENT!!) with notations in red,” says one email to Ceti dated Nov. 20, 2014. Siler promised to reply soon with additional information Ceti requested. “Believe me, I am on it.”
In another, she appears to have forwarded a photographed copy of the phony letter to Ceti. The email is signed by Siler.
“I have scanned in a copy of the letter that was actually sent to me in Cali from the chief operating officer of the OHA,” states the email dated Oct. 27, 2014. “As it is a physical letter, I have scanned it and sent as a pic. … Let me know if you need anything else.”
Siler, in a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive, said she “did not compose” either email. She said someone faked them, but she didn’t know who.
Jacobs, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons records, returned to federal prison last year for violating the terms of his post-prison release. Jacobs said he was sent back to prison because he left New York and headed to California without first getting approval from probation officials and then failed to check in with them while he was there. He said his return to prison had nothing to do with his role at Green Rush.
He denied creating the fake letter and said the information in the material drafted for potential investors came from Siler. She was deeply involved in preparing the material and the two were in in touch numerous times a day, he said.
“I didn’t have any reason to question it,” Jacobs said in a telephone interview this week from prison in Kentucky. “I took whatever information she gave me to be acceptable. I didn’t go through and personally vet everything she told me.”
Siler personally told him of her special relationship with Oregon regulators and the prospect of multiple dispensary licenses with limited red tape, Jacobs said. He was present when Siler made the claims while wooing backers – that she would have “favored nation status, that she could acquire additional licenses, that she would have first dibs,” he said.
He became associated with Green Rush, he said, after answering a Craigslist job ad. He said he didn’t know if Green Rush’s owner was aware of his criminal history, saying there was “no reason why he should have been.”
Green Rush is cooperating with the Oregon investigation, said Katy Young, a San Francisco-based attorney representing the company. She declined to answer questions about what Green Rush knew about Jacobs’ criminal past when it arranged for him to work with Siler, citing the investigation.
Mann, the Canadian businessman, said it was the letter that prompted him to invest in Cannacea in the first place.
He said he first saw it in late November 2014 during a meeting with one of Siler’s early associates in Cannacea, Brian Dawe.
Mann said in an interview that he knew Dawe from their work in the prison industry. Dawe worked with an association of correctional officers. Mann said he owns a company that sells protective equipment to corrections agencies.
Mann recalled meeting with Dawe at a Nashville hotel, where a corrections conference was being held. He said Baur, the investor from Pennsylvania, also was in the room.
Mann said Dawe showed him the letter and described Siler as an experienced cannabis grower with a popular following among medicinal consumers. Mann was impressed.
Dawe, in an email responding to questions about his role in Cannacea, said he planned to help Siler start her marijuana business. He said Mann was looking for opportunities for “investor friends in New York.”
“He said he thought he might be able to help us in Portland and asked if I would introduce him to Tisha Siler,” Dawe wrote. “He never offered to invest a penny of his money, only of others, and I never asked him to.”
Mann said he met Siler for the first time the following month, in December, and remembered how she “made a point of the fact that she managed to get these six (other) licenses and no one else had.”
Siler told him, Mann said, that Oregon officials “had approached her” about setting up her business in the state.
He decided to loan Siler about $ 168,000 to finish construction on the dispensary and cover other expenses, he said. He began as an investor and eventually became Siler’s business partner involved in daily operations, he said.
He saw Oregon’s new market as a potentially lucrative one. State lawmakers allowed medical marijuana dispensaries to sell to anyone 21 and older starting last fall, kicking off recreational marijuana sales.
Mann said he incorporated the claims about multiple licenses and Siler’s reputation among regulators in a presentation he made to six investors in early 2015; five did not invest, he said.
But he said a broker he showed it to shared it with representatives of Harvard Properties U.S., another Canadian company.
Mann said Harvard representatives came to Portland to meet Siler. In 2015, Harvard Properties bought the Northeast Portland building for Siler’s dispensary and the 13-acre property in rural Clackamas County for a marijuana cultivation operation, according to court and property records.
In all, Harvard Properties, paid more than $ 3 million for both parcels, court records show.
Mann said he never questioned the veracity of Siler’s claims or the letter. He made no effort to contact the state to verify the letter’s authenticity.
“Without that letter,” Mann said, “I would not have gotten involved. There is no question.”
Oregon officials first learned about the letter in July 2015 when an investor, Baur, called the Oregon Health Authority to ask about the status of the six additional medical marijuana licenses she assumed the state planned to issue Siler. The agency regulates medical marijuana dispensaries.
By then, Baur had split with Siler and Cannacea, according to records in the state’s file. Baur’s money was refunded. She signed a nondisclosure agreement, prohibiting her from discussing what happened.
However, documents included in the state’s file show Baur believed she “had been taken advantage of” by Siler.
Baur emailed a copy of the letter to Margaret Lut, a compliance specialist with the medical marijuana program.
“I’m sorry to say but the letter appears to have been created by someone,” Lut wrote to Baur on June 30, 2015. She went onto say that the state official whose name appears on the letter never signed documents for the medical marijuana program.
The agency forwarded the letter to the state Department of Business and Consumer Services, which opened a fraud investigation into Siler.
On Oct. 15, about a month after the agency opened its investigation, two officials from that department made an unannounced visit to Cannacea. They wanted to know what Siler knew about the letter.
Siler was already on the state’s radar after she allowed a vendor to give away marijuana concentrates and joints in the dispensary parking lot on the opening day of recreational marijuana sales, violating state rules. She paid a $ 2,500 fine, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Siler told the regulators that the letter was fake, according to investigator Dwayne Edsinga’s notes of the meeting. She said Jacobs had written it based on some questions he’d asked her. It isn’t clear from Edsinga’s notes what those questions were or how she responded to them.
She told the regulators that she didn’t use the letter to drum up investors.
Mann, who sat in on the meeting, said he was stunned by Siler’s statement. If the letter was fake, he wondered, why did she share it with him?
Once the meeting was over, Mann said he talked with Siler about the letter. He said she “did not have a good explanation” of what happened. He said he told her he would no longer try to find investors. He said he alerted an attorney for Harvard Properties, the company that had bought the properties for Siler’s business.
He said he’d tried ever since to get his original $ 168,000 investment back. He said Siler also owes him about $ 125,000 for professional services he provided.
In April, Harvard Properties filed lawsuits in Multnomah and Clackamas County circuit courts against Siler and Cannacea, trying to eject them from the dispensary and the growing operation. The complaint alleges Siler lives on the Clackamas County property in Mulino, which, according to the original real estate listing, includes a custom-built, two-story home featuring a chef’s kitchen and “awe-inspiring entry.”
In its Clackamas County complaint, Harvard Properties is asking for nearly $ 70,000 from Siler, claiming she hasn’t paid rent since September 2015.
The company filed a similar claim in Multnomah County for about $ 87,000 related to the dispensary property in Northeast Portland. In that case, Harvard claims it has repeatedly asked for rent and has received nothing.
Paul Hill, chairman and CEO of the Hill Companies, the parent company for Harvard Properties, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the company isn’t doing business with Siler or Cannacea at this point; the company said in court records that it had tried to negotiate a business deal with Siler, but those talks fell apart.
Hill said the Oregon venture was “too far away, too complicated.” The company plans to sell both properties.
Siteworks Design Build, a Portland design and construction company, has also filed a lien against the Northeast Halsey Street property, citing unpaid work amounting to nearly $ 64,000. The lawsuit asks the court to order that the property be sold so Siteworks can be paid what it is owed.
Siler, meanwhile, notified the Oregon Health Authority on June 17 that she planned to temporarily close Cannacea due to a dispute with her “partners.” She said she plans to reopen by July 15.
The state’s investigation into Siler and Green Rush continues.
The records released to The Oregonian/OregonLive, which include more than 1,000 pages, show extensive negotiations between Siler’s former attorney and the state over what role Siler played in creating and distributing sham investor material and whether Siler should pay in civil fines.
The state can issue a proposed order spelling out the wrongdoing and imposing a fine. The parties can either negotiate a resolution, which typically involves agreeing to a set of findings and paying a fine, or the case goes before an administrative law judge.
The person involved could potentially sign the order but not agree to the findings or deny them. The state could also conclude that no wrongdoing occurred.
In March, William Caffee, Siler’s lawyer then, questioned the state’s ongoing interest in Siler and Cannacea. He emailed Dorothy Bean, a lawyer for the state, claiming Siler “made honest albeit naive mistakes of judgment” in working with certain people. He blamed Jacobs and Mann for creating misleading investor materials and pointed out that ultimately no Oregonians invested in the business.
Bean, who went back and forth with Caffee for months over Siler’s role, pushed back.
“Rather than monitoring her business properly,” Bean wrote, “Tisha buried her head in the sand and allowed blatant, irresponsible misrepresentations and forged documents to form the ‘mix of information’ that a reasonable investor would consider in making a decision to invest in Cannacea.
“Ignorance,” she wrote, “is not a defense, nor is reliance on professionals.”
Caffee, in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive in June, said he no longer represents Siler. He declined to say why.
Mann, who said he had no experience with the marijuana industry until he came to Portland and got involved in Cannacea, said he just wants his money back.
“I have some damaged relationships within my own money network,” he said, adding, “I am a big boy. That’s business for you.”
— Noelle Crombie