Unfair Work Practices Florida

How Florida’s well-connected medical marijuana chief got his job, despite little experience

State did not advertise for director of the Office of Compassionate Use post.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s top medical marijuana regulator had little experience when he won a high-profile job that state officials refused to publicly advertise, but he had assets few could match: His father is a wealthy, wired Tallahassee insider and his sister works in Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

In July 2015, former Surgeon General John Armstrong signed off on a memo from current Surgeon General (then deputy health secretary) Celeste Philip asking that the department not advertise the open job for director of the Office of Compassionate Use on the basis that Christian Bax was “the best candidate for the position,” making the assertion that he had “several years of experience in navigating medical marijuana regulations.”

But it turns out Bax was the only candidate who applied for the position, and on his job application he claimed to have only about 15 months experience working part-time as a consultant in Boston doing application work for medical cannabis firms in Washington and Nevada.

In written questions submitted by POLITICO Florida, Department spokeswoman Mara Gambineri refused to address the contradiction. She insists that “based on Mr. Bax’s policy and rulemaking knowledge and experience, the department determined he was the best candidate for the position” — even though Bax was the sole candidate to apply. She refused to elaborate on how the department made that determination.

Soon after Bax was hired in July 2015 as the director of OCU, his office was beset by legal disputes alleging the method for awarding medical marijuana licenses was arbitrary. Now the office is plagued by a growing pile of legal bills.

But beyond Bax’s thin resume, the state’s opaque job search and the skyrocketing litigation costs, it turns out the little experience Bax claimed to have had may have been greatly exaggerated, according to recent media reports.

A recent WPLG investigative report called into doubt Bax’s claimed experience, noting that the consulting firm he claims to have co-founded, CBK Consulting, never officially existed. That report built upon investigative work done last year by free-lance journalist Angela Bacca for the Huffington Post.

There’s no evidence Bax’s alleged partnership, CBK Consulting, ever registered as a business with any government entity, according to public records and media reports. Gambineri noted that CBK was a general partnership and asserted, “For general partnerships, there is no filing requirement pursuant to state law.”

However, Massachusetts law would have required Bax to register the name he and his partners were doing business as with the City of Boston, where the office was located. So if the business did exist, it’s not clear it ever operated legally under state law.

When asked what efforts the department made to verify Bax’s claims, Gambineri replied in an email, “Per the department’s usual process, we conduct reference checks for potential employees,” but she refused to elaborate or answer questions about whom the department spoke with in carrying out the background check.

When approached by POLITICO Florida about his business consulting clients, Bax walked away, refusing to answer any questions. Gambineri claims that Bax and his partners signed non-disclosure agreements with their clients, but has not provided the agreements. Nor has Gambineri produced any partnership agreement for CBK Consulting.

And in the job application the department provided in response to a POLITICO Florida public records request, Bax did not sign the certification that he was aware any misrepresentations in the application could bar him from getting the job or get him fired.

“The missing signature was not intentional,” Gambineri said. “Mr. Bax has attested to his experience in other forums including in open court, under oath.”

So why did Bax get his job if he wasn’t an established medical marijuana guru with years of experience?

Both the WPLG and Huffington Post reports took note of Bax’s family connections.

Bax’s father, James Bax, is a wealthy, long-time Republican political donor whom Scott appointed last year to the Public Employees Relations Commission. Coincidentally, Bax’s father also was the first Secretary of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

And the younger Bax also had a friend in the governor’s office: His sister Laura. Bax’s sister sent through another governor’s office employee, Courtney Coppola, an “alternative resume” to Bax’s predecessor, Patti Nelson, Bacca reported for the Huffington Post.

And documents obtained by POLITICO Florida show that weeks after being hired, Bax went to bat for Coppola. In August, then deputy health secretary Celeste Philip signed off on a request by Bax to not advertise an open job in the Office of Compassionate Use so they could hire Coppola — with an 18 percent raise over her position job in the governor’s office.

Gambineri said Coppola “was hired based on the merits of her experience, particularly as it relates to agency rule making processes,” and notes that her $50,000 salary is less than the $51,626.90 that her predecessor made.

Meanwhile, the Department has been plagued by legal woes and ballooning litigation costs under Bax.

About a month after Bax was hired, the department signed a $275,000 contract with the law firm Vezina, Lawrence & Piscitelli to represent his office in licensing disputes. Bax sat on the committee that evaluated licensing applications, and those decisions have touched off a wave of litigation, and in a couple cases, leading to additional licenses being awarded.

As applicants who were denied licenses have steadily chipped away at the state’s legal positions justifying their licensing decisions, the cost to defend Bax’s office has skyrocketed. That legal contract has has grown from $275,000 to $1,275,000, with the state paying out more than a quarter million dollars to the firm last month alone.

And industry insiders say an expected ruling in one pending case could call the whole selection system into question.

Last year, the administrative law judge in that case, in a rare informational order, criticized the licensee selection process.

“The department in fact sorted by rank, but, by inverting the rankings and calling them scores, made it look as though the applicants had been scored in proportion to merit,” the judge wrote. “It should not be thought, however, that the same results would have been reached had the department actually scored the applications, as the applicable rules require, because that is not necessarily true.”

He noted that, “Missing entirely from the process was any determination regarding how much quality an application possessed in relation to the others with which it was competing — a determination without which no genuine score could be assigned.”

The department’s medical marijuana litigation costs are expected to keep rising, with Scott’s budget recommending that it get an additional $800,000 next year for legal representation for Bax’s office.

Visit Us On TwitterVisit Us On FacebookVisit Us On Youtube