A New Jersey cannabis license applicant is suing the state and claiming that some license winners were using certain women as props to get special female-owned business license. Curio Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of privately-owned Curio Wellness based out of Maryland, filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of NJ, Appellate Division (#A-000947-21), against New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (NJCRC) for a stay of Alternative Treatment Center license awards in the Central Region, alleging application fraud from several of the awardees of the coveted licenses.
Curio Holdings is claiming that because of fraudulent Women Business Enterprise certifications (WBE) Altus New Jersey, LLC (Altus) and Holistic NJ I LLC (Holistic) among others, should have their license awards withdrawn and a stay on awards put in place.
WBE certifications are acquired through the Department of Treasury, Division of Revenue and Enterprise Services. To qualify for the M/WBE certification,, a business or enterprise has to be either be fully owned and controlled by a minority or woman or has 51% ownership interest or stock held by minorities and/or women and the management and daily business operations are controlled by one or more of the minorities and/or women who own it. Applicants get 90 points out of a possible 900 points for being a minority or women-led company.
Curio Holdings writes that NJCRC previously responded to its question on whether it fully vetted individual company M/WBE credentials by stating that “[a]pplicants that provided an approved New Jersey Department of Treasury issued MBE/WBE/Veteran-Business/Disabled Veteran Business certification were awarded the maximum points for this category.” In other words, NJCRC trusts the department’s certifications.
Tangled Web Of Connections
The lawsuit outlines the alleged fraudulent WBE certifications for Altus, Holistic, AP NJ Health, and CHM Consulting, but the Altus and Holistic allegations are a tangled web of relationships and potential corporate system gaming.
Altus’ principal ownership lists Katherine Bio. The lawsuit alleges that she has little to no experience in the management or daily operations of a cannabis business and has not been seen or heard at any of the previous host community approval meetings, nor was her ownership and Altus’ WBE certification touted publicly. Ms. Bio did however hold the principal position of “medical advisory committee” for Standard Farms, a once troubled Pennsylvania-licensed cannabis cultivator. Tilt Holdings (OTC: TLLTF) acquired Standard Farms in 2019 in a deal valued at $40 million. The company said that Bio was no longer associated with Standard Farms.
Instead of Bio, Robert Pease and Peter Goldrath have publicly represented Altus. Pease was the previous president and chief financial officer at Franklin BioScence. Mr. Goldrath was co-founder of Standard Farms, alongside Katherine Bio and her husband Peter A. Bio, the founder of Standard Farms. Both Goldrath and Mr. Bio are partners at a private cannabis investment firm called FocusGrowth Asset Management LP (FocusGrowth).
The lawsuit alleges that the most telling fact that Altus’ WBE certification may be using Bio as a propare public comments from Goldrath that Altus’ funding and management will be supplied through management services and funding agreements with FocusGrowth, where both he and Mr. Bio are partners.
Standard Farms’ Female Trouble
Mr. Bio and Mr. Goldrath, in their past lives at Standard Farms, have allegedly and unsuccessfully attempted to use a woman to game the application system to win more points.
A former director of administrative operations for Standard Farms, Lisa Pabon, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in 2018 against the company. She alleged that Mr. Bio and Mr. Goldrath fired her for refusing to defraud New Jersey during the 2018 RFA process. They wanted her to agree to claim that she was the “Equal Opportunity and Director of Community Outreach” and “Chief Administrative Officer” at Altus on the application – positions she never held at a company she never worked for.
“I wasn’t going to go to jail for lying,” she told the Inquirer in 2019.
In the same lawsuit, Lisa Pabon also alleged that Standard Farms “sold product with defective/leaky cartridges” that she believed were emptied and recycled instead of being destroyed as required by law.
Although returned, there was no record in the state’s seed-to-sale cannabis tracking system. She documented at least $15,000 worth of marijuana oil returned from patients and vendors. Instead of responding to her concerns, Standard Farms fired her and later told the court that she was terminated for being rude, incompetent, and difficult to work with.
The case was dismissed pending private arbitration, so Green Market Report is unable to confirm the results of the arbitration. In addition to this lawsuit, Standard Farms had multiple allegations from whistleblowers lobbied against the company in 2019.
According to the Inquirer, Renee Kelso, the former director of quality assurance at Standard Farms, quit her job after trying to prevent the company from using hydrogen peroxide mist spray to control mold and mildew – a practice explicitly banned in the states for cannabis.
Another executive, Paul Karlovich, quit Standard Farms because he said the company “made him do things that he wasn’t comfortable with.” He alleged the company broke the law and brought in seeds and cutting illegally after the 30-day deadline and that the company had neither the tools to mitigate the airborne mildew dust in the greenhouses from the humid climate of the Poconos nor proper odor mitigation system.
After the Inquirer published the whistleblower’s stories and complaints, TerraVida Holistic Centers, immediately removed Standard Farms products from its stores.
Holistic NJ A Layer Deeper
Curio also suggests that there’s more woman propping for WBE fraud at Holistic NJ, a shell for Holistic Industries and where Amy Singer is listed as its principal owner. However, NJCRC’s award letter was penned to Josh Genderson, the CEO and chairman of Holistic Industries, a multistate operator of cannabis companies in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and California.
This alone begs the question of Holistic NJ ownership, management and the day-to-operational control necessary to qualify for the WBE certification. In other words, if Singer is leading the company shouldn’t the correspondence be directed toward her?
Here’s where the relationships get tangled because Amy Singer, the purported owner of Holistic NJ, is married to Justin Singer, a partner at Feuerstein Kulick LLP, a cannabis boutique law firm that is named as the outside general counsel for Holistic Industries. Justin Singer is also a partner at FocusGrowth, along with Mr. Bio and Mr. Goldrath and two additional partners at Feuerstein Kulick.
From the Curio documents, it appears that FocusGrowth and Feuerstein Kulick principals are involved in both applications. This would disqualify both Altus and Holistic NJ Applications for violating the 2019 RFA rule that “significantly involved persons” can only be associated with one application.
The lawsuit goes on the allege WBE fraud from CHM Consulting and misgivings about AP NJ Health’s application score based on prior predatory practices.
While it could be perceived as just sour grapes on Curio’s part, there is big money at stake here.
Cannabis licenses are as valuable as they have ever been, especially in states where the number of them are capped. Plus, this wouldn’t be the first time a company was accused of using stand-ins to get a license. Harvest Health & Recreation paid $500,000 to settle a charge that it misrepresented a minority ownership in Ohio in 2020. The company said the company was minority owned while all the correspondence was going to the now former CEO Steve White. New Jersey may need to do more vetting when it comes to its social equity applicants.
This lawsuit is ongoing with merits brief due on 4/18/2022.