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Michigan marijuana board chair bribed with sex worker, prosecutors say

Rick Johnson walking
Rick Johnson (left) pleaded guilty in April to bribery-related charges incurred during his service as chair of Michigan’s now-defunct marijuana licensing board. (Bridge file photo)
  • Sex worker was paid $2,000 by lobbyist for services with former Michigan marijuana board co-chair, prosecutors revealed
  • Lobbyists used the code name ‘Batman’ for Johnson to coordinate cash payments, other benefits in exchange for licensing advantages
  • West Bloomfield businessman John Dalaly, a co-defendant, sentenced to 28 months in prison Thursday

Lobbyists offered a sex worker to Rick Johnson, Michigan’s former marijuana board chair and a former House speaker, as part of a bribe scheme to expedite approval of medical marijuana business licenses, prosecutors revealed Thursday. 

Using the code name “Batman” in reference to Johnson in messages, lobbyists provided the services of the sex worker, tickets to sporting events and direct cash payments laundered through multiple limited liability companies in return for an edge during the marijuana licensing application process, prosecutors told U.S. District Court Judge Jane Beckering in a sentencing document. 

The sex worker was paid $2,000 to have commercial sex with Johnson by co-defendant and lobbyist Brian Pierce, who along with fellow lobbyist and co-defendant Vince Brown provided at least $42,000 in payments to or on behalf of Johnson from 2017 to 2019, according to court documents.


Prosecutors want the judge to send a “strong message” and sentence Johnson to at least 71 months in prison and pay a $110,200 fine to cover the cost of his bribes. In his plea agreement, Johnson agreed to pay the federal government. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed not to bring charges against Johnson's wife, Jan Johnson.

Also Thursday, Beckering sentenced co-defendant John Dalaly, a West Bloomfield businessman who paid Johnson $68,200 in bribes through two companies and offered him chartered private flights for his work on the marijuana board, to 28 months in prison. One of Dalaly’s companies was actively seeking licensing approval from the board at the time. 

Johnson gave Dalaly “valuable non-public information” about the board’s operation and assistance with a license application, prosecutors told the court.

Johnson, 70, pleaded guilty in April to taking cash and other benefits from lobbyists and others while chairing the state’s now-defunct medical marijuana licensing board. According to court documents, he accepted 38 cash bribe payments over a period of 21 months, among other benefits.

A Leroy Republican, Johnson was a farmer who served in the House from 1999 to 2004, was its speaker 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 — all four had already signed plea agreements to the charges and signaled their willingness to cooperate with the investigation.

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 exploited. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, 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 “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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