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Ex-head of Michigan marijuana board pleads guilty to taking $110K in bribes

Rick Johnson talking
Rick Johnson, left, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes Tuesday. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)
  • Rick Johnson pleaded guilty to accepting more than $110,000 in bribes while chairing state’s medical marijuana board
  • He faces up to 10 years in prison 
  • All four defendants have reached plea agreements

GRAND RAPIDS —  Former Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson pleaded guilty Tuesday to accepting more than $100,000 in bribes to expedite the approval of medical marijuana business licenses.

During a Tuesday arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Phillip Green in Grand Rapids, Johnson admitted taking cash and other benefits from lobbyists and others while chairing the state’s now-defunct medical marijuana licensing board from 2017 to 2019.


Johnson, 70, could face up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced in the next few months. His court comments were limited to brief responses to the judge, and he and his attorney did not take reporters’ questions following the hearing.


Johnson, R-Leroy, was a farmer who served in the House from 1999 to 2004, was its speaker for from 2001 to 2004 and worked as a lobbyist after leaving the Legislature. He is one of four charged in an ongoing investigation into the state's medical marijuana licensing process. 

Also charged were John Dawood Dalaly of West Bloomfield Township, who pleaded guilty Friday to paying Johnson at least $68,000 in cash and providing him with private chartered flights, and lobbyists Brian Pierce and Vincent Brown. 

Pierce and Brown were charged with conspiracy to commit bribery for arranging to bribe Johnson through various entities. A plea deal indicates Johnson accepted the bribes through limited liability companies he controlled in an attempt to hide them.

All four had already signed plea agreements to the charges and signaled their willingness to cooperate with the investigation.

"The investigation and the prosecution of public corruption is a priority for our office," U.S. Attorney for the Western District Mark Totten told reporters after the hearing.

Mark Totten talking to reporters
Mark Totten, the U.S. Attorney for Michigan’s Western District, says the marijuana bribery investigation is ongoing, following charges against the former chair of Michigan’s medical pot board and three others. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)

"We will follow it wherever we find it. And when we do find it, we will take the actions necessary to give Michiganders the accountability that they deserve." 

Johnson was released on a $25,000 bond. In his plea agreement, Johnson agreed to repay the federal government $110,200, the amount of his bribes. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed not to bring charges against Johnson's wife, Jan Johnson.

The Detroit News reported that Dalay admitted Rick Johnson directed him to hire her as a consultant at a rate of $4,000 per month.

A plea agreement indicates Dalaly gave at least $68,200 in cash payments and other benefits through his two companies, one of which was actively seeking licensing approval from the board at the time. 

Johnson also gave Dalaly “valuable non-public information” about the board’s operation and assistance with license application.

Brown and Pierce lobbied on behalf of various businesses seeking licenses from the board, and agreed to give Johnson at least $42,000 in cash and other benefits to influence him while their clients sought licenses from the board, according to their respective plea agreements. 

Johnson was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder to chair the Medical Marihuana Licensing Board in May 2017. 

The board was disbanded in April 2019, a few months after Michigan voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency now handles licensing for the marijuana industry.


As chair, Johnson played an outsize role in determining what companies obtained licenses to grow, process and distribute medical marijuana legally — a situation federal officials say he knowingly took advantage of.  

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrats, has cited Johnson’s criminal case to push for reforms, saying Michigan’s “weak” laws make it easier for lobbyists to “fleece taxpayers and benefit personally.”

A survey of state lobbying laws by Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity labeled Michigan’s requirements e “weak,” meaning they are “so incomplete or overly general as to render them useless in understanding a lobbyist's expenditures.”

Among other things, the law doesn’t require lobbyists to disclose what legislation or rule they are trying to influence while purchasing meals or hosting outings for Michigan lawmakers and policymakers. 

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