Politics & Government

California cannabis king linked to Ukrainian who was indicted with Giuliani associates

A Ukrainian-born man indicted in a campaign-finance scheme along with two associates of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney, is an officer in a Sacramento cannabis dispensary controlled by a local businessman with a considerable share of the city’s pot business, records show.

Andrey Kukushkin was among four men indicted last week in an intricate plan to funnel foreign campaign donations to U.S. politicians and enter the legal pot business in Nevada and other states. Two of the defendants, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, are associates of Giuliani and were reportedly helping him investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his son.

Now, that international scandal has unraveled a considerable subplot in Sacramento.

City and state records show Kukushkin’s partner in Sacramento is Garib Karapetyan, a permit holder for a total of eight dispensaries in the city. Karapetyan and his associates have become the de facto pot kings of Sacramento, controlling far more licenses than anyone else and papering the city with billboards and ads for their dispensaries.

Karapetyan, 35, has for years quietly and systematically expanded his pot-selling business throughout the city with the consent of Sacramento regulators, controlling nearly a third of the industry here. He has donated to the campaigns of local elected officials, including Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and purchased a $1.1 million condo in the luxury Sawyer Hotel near the Golden 1 Center.

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There is no evidence that any of the money cited in last week’s indictment has been used to invest in the pot business in Sacramento.

However, the arrests draw a direct line from the alleged plan to funnel foreign donations to U.S. politicians, and the impeachment investigation in Congress, to the doorstep of Sacramento’s burgeoning legal pot industry. Several California politicians, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, accepted donations from Parnas and Fruman, and their work for Giuliani has become part of the impeachment investigation against Trump.

Kukushkin, who was arrested Thursday in San Francisco, is listed as chief financial officer of a corporation called Sharp Source, which operates the Twelve Hour Care retail pot dispensary in a nondescript strip mall on Fruitridge Road in Sacramento, according to records reviewed by The Bee.

Kukushkin, 46, also is listed as one of two permit holders for THC Sacramento, the alternate name for Twelve Hour Care, in documents filed with the city. Kukushkin has been among those holding the permit for the THC dispensary since 2017.

Kukushkin and Karapetyan also were listed as officers in a Sacramento “management and consulting” business called Legacy Botanical Company LLC, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office in 2016. The state agency’s website says the company’s business license has been suspended. The Legacy Botanical connection between Kukushkin and Karapetyan was first reported by Mother Jones magazine.

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Ukrainian-born businessman Andrey Kukushkin and three others were indicted Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in an intricate scheme to funnel foreign campaign donations to American politicians. Kukushkin is an officer in a Sacramento cannabis dispensary operated by a local businessman who controls a considerable share of the area’s pot business, records show. ok.ru

For years, the city of Sacramento and its pot regulators have allowed business owners such as Karapetyan to gain control of a large segment of the storefront pot market in the city, as Karapetyan has added a variety of investors along the way. Kukushkin was one of those investors.

The tangled business interests associated with Karapetyan’s pot dispensaries illustrate how some owners have been allowed to expand despite relatively tight rules about ownership. Under city regulations, dispensary owners who want to get out of the business must surrender their licenses to the city; the city is then supposed to hold a lottery to determine the new owner.

The regulatory process was designed to prevent a consolidation of ownership in an industry in which the city has capped the number of licensed storefronts at 30.

Now, Sacramento’s mayor has called for an investigation into how owners have been allowed to accumulate so many licenses.

“If this story is true, then our cannabis licensing process, which was designed to protect consumers and reward local law-abiding businesses, is being improperly exploited,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s spokeswoman Mary Lynne Vellinga said in a statement Sunday. “The mayor is calling for an immediate investigation and will lead an effort to add additional safeguards to the licensing process.”

City Manager Howard Chan echoed the call. “The City of Sacramento is committed to transparency and integrity and will examine any reports of wrongdoing,” city spokesman Tim Swanson said Sunday.

Garib Karapetyan could not be reached for comment. A Bee reporter called Joe Karapetyan, listed as Garib Karapetyan’s business partner on city documents, earlier this month. In response to questions, he replied: “Oh boy, am I not going to like this?” He referred the reporter to his attorney, Brad Hirsch, who didn’t return messages Sunday.

In an interview Thursday with McClatchy, Hirsch said he wasn’t impressed with Kukushkin. “I thought he was not particularly bright in his decision making,” said Hirsch, who no longer represents Kukushkin.

Federal indictment

It wasn’t immediately clear how Kukushkin became connected with the Sacramento marijuana business. His attorney, Alan Dressler, couldn’t be reached for comment. But the federal indictment says the four men were trying to get into the cannabis business and planned to funnel foreign cash to influential politicians in Nevada, New York and other states.

Kukushkin was involved in a California lawsuit that claims the managers of a San Francisco dispensary, MediThrive, misused $1 million he had invested with them. He also admitted his investment money actually came from someone else, a wealthy Russian businessman named Andrey Muraviev, McClatchy reported. Muraviev (whose last name is sometimes spelled Muravyov) runs a Moscow-based investment fund called Parus Capital Limited and has served as an executive for several Russian companies.

Muraviev is listed as an investor, along with Kukushkin and Karapetyan, in the now-defunct Legacy Botanical business in Sacramento.

Kukushkin, Karapetyan and Muraviev are the three officers of a San Francisco-based entity called KKMC Management, LLC. The company was first registered in Roseville in 2016 by Hirsch. Hirsch told McClatchy Thursday that he cut business ties with Kukushkin and Muraviev several years ago.

The indictment against the four men, coming as the House impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump gains momentum, made worldwide headlines. The two men identified as Giuliani associates, Parnas and Fruman, were arrested at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington carrying one-way tickets on an international flight.

Kukushkin made a brief appearance in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Friday. Although prosecutors said he was a threat to flee, the San Francisco Chronicle said Kukushkin was released after family members posted a $1 million bond. The Chronicle also reported that Kukushkin was an investor in several Bay Area pot dispensaries and was attempting to turn a ranch in Livermore into a cannabis farm.

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Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, welcomes then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on stage during a campaign rally on August 18, 2016, at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS) Jeff Siner TNS

Issued by a federal grand jury in New York, the indictment says Kukushkin, Parnas, Fruman and businessman David Correia made plans to form a recreational marijuana business that would be funded by a foreigner (identified only as “Foreign National-1”).

The plan was to get retail cannabis licenses approved in several states including Nevada by funneling the foreign money to politicians’ campaigns, the indictment alleges. It’s illegal for foreigners to donate to U.S. election campaigns.

Kukushkin is quoted in the indictment as saying the scheme had to be kept secret because of the unnamed financier’s “Russian roots and current political paranoia about it.”

The men developed a plan to give up to $2 million of Foreign National-1’s money to state and federal campaigns to get the marijuana licenses approved though a “multi-state license strategy.” They hid the source of the money so that Foreign National-1 wouldn’t be linked to the funds, the indictment alleges.

At one point in November 2018, Fruman made a $10,000 donation to an unidentified Nevada candidate’s campaign after the group had missed the deadline to apply for a recreational marijuana business license. The group needed the candidate to give the “green light to implement this,” the indictment says.

Kukushkin told his co-defendants they were “two months too late to the game unless we change the rules,” the indictment says.

McClatchy has reported that Fruman and Parnas, who are both U.S. citizens, made campaign donations to four Republican congressman from California: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and three who lost their re-election bids last November: Jeff Denham, Steve Knight and David Valadao.

Fruman gave Valadao, who is challenging the Democrat who unseated him, a donation of $2,444. Valadao’s spokesman said the candidate will donate the funds to charity. Parnas gave $2,700 to McCarthy, who has promised to donate the money to charity.

Pot king of Sacramento

Besides Kukushkin, four other men are listed as partners with Karapetyan in the Sacramento pot business: Joe Karapetyan, Gevorg Kadzhikyan, Gayk Serobyan and Grach Serobyan. It’s unknown whether Joe and Garib Karapetyan are related.

Their names turn up on city and state records linked to the various retail dispensaries, although not every investor is listed on every location. The one constant thread is Garib Karapetyan, who is a permit holder of eight dispensaries.

Despite the involvement of other investors, city and state records suggest Garib Karapetyan has been involved in Sacramento’s pot business since the early years of legalized recreational marijuana use in California. Karapetyan is chief executive of Capitol Compliance Management LLC, a Sacramento company that describes itself on its website as a pot marketing consultant and is affiliated with a company called Kolas.

Kolas is a brand name used by Twelve Hour Care and other dispensaries controlled by Karapetyan and his fellow investors. Store employees wear purple polo shirts with the Kolas logo, and Paul Clemons, the deputy director of licensing at Capitol Compliance, told the Sacramento News & Review in June that all of the dispensaries will be rebranded as Kolas.

When a Sacramento Bee reporter visited Twelve Hour Care on Sunday, a manager referred inquiries to the Capitol Compliance office in downtown Sacramento. Efforts to reach Karapetyan were unsuccessful last week.

In addition to Twelve Hour Care, Garib Karapetyan is listed as a permit holder for seven storefront pot dispensaries in the city, according to documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee through a Public Records Act request.

They are: Alternative Medical Center at 1220 Blumenfeld Drive, Doctors Orders at 1704 Main Ave.,Golden Health & Wellness at 1115 Fee Drive, CC101 at 6435 Florin Perkins Road, House of Organics at 8848 Fruitridge Road, Cloud 9 at 5711 Florin Perkins Road and Safe Accessible Solutions at 8125 36th Ave. Safe Accessible is planning to relocate to the midtown location once occupied by the Bread Store.

A year ago, Karapetyan purchased a $1.1 million condominium in the Sawyer Hotel adjacent to Golden 1 Center, both of which were developed by the Sacramento Kings, according to Sacramento County real estate records. His condo is on the same floor as Vivek Ranadive, chairman of the Kings.

But Karapetyan has also faced setbacks. In 2014 the World Intellectual Property Organization, ruling in a case brought by tobacco giant Philip Morris, ordered him to surrender an internet domain name he had registered: marijuanamarlboros.com.

Earlier this year he was sued in Sacramento Superior Court by Matthew Davies, the former owner of the THC dispensary on Fruitridge. The lawsuit says two former owners of THC sold the business to Karapetyan even though they’d transferred control to Davies. Davies said he was in jail at the time on an unrelated matter and didn’t learn of the arrangement until later.

The suit is pending. In court filings, Karapetyan’s attorney tried and failed to get the case tossed out of court.

THC is the same dispensary in which Karapetyan is a permit holder with Kukushkin, the man indicted last week.

In addition, Karapetyan and several of the dispensaries he controls have been hit with major tax problems. In April 2018 he personally was slapped with a federal income tax lien of $1.2 million for the 2015 tax year. Records show he paid off the lien a few months later.

Karapetyan has been politically active as well. Records show he has donated to various candidates in the Sacramento area, including Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, Steinberg, City Councilman Jay Schenirer and state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.

Garib Karapetyan gave $2,000 to the Steinberg for Sacramento Mayor 2016 campaign in early 2016, according to city campaign finance records. In addition, there was a $1,000 donation to Steinberg from Club Culture Enterprise on the same day that year. Garib Karapetyan listed himself as the owner of Club Culture Enterprise in campaign filings that year.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the Mayor is immediately returning these 2016 political contributions by donating them to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Sacramento,” Vellinga said.

Steinberg does not know the man, and would never accept money from someone who asked for something in exchange, Vellinga said.

Several of the Kolas-affiliated men also gave to City Councilman Jay Schenirer’s reelection campaign last year, filings show. Garib Karapetyan gave $250; Joe Karapetyan gave $750; Gevorg Kadzhikyan gave $250; Grach Serobyan gave $1,500.

Those names are listed on city applications or permits for several Kolas dispensaries.

Schenirer said he did not know the men.

“I don’t have relationships with them,” Schenirer said Sunday. “I receive campaign donations from a lot of folks.”

Asked if Schenirer had ever been approached by anyone offering to donate to his campaign in exchange for help getting cannabis businesses in the city, he said, “absolutely not.”

“If anyone approached me in that manner, I’d never take a donation from them,” he said.

The Bee’s Phillip Reese and McClatchy DC reporters Ben Wieder and Kevin Hall contributed to this report.

Sacramento CA pot dispensary documents

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.
Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
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