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Ousted OLCC head says Oregon Gov. Kotek fired him for a campaign donor

The exterior of an Oregon Liquor Control Commission building.
Kristian Foden-Vencil
The exterior of an Oregon Liquor Control Commission building.

The former head of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission says Gov. Tina Kotek fired him earlier this year at the behest of a controversial cannabis entrepreneur.

Now Steve Marks has served notice he might sue Kotek and the state for wrongful termination, defamation and other claims.

The former longtime state official filed a tort claim notice last week, the first step toward filing suit against the state government. The document alleges with little evidence that Kotek decided to fire Marks in late January because he’d run afoul of Rosa Cazares, the co-owner of the La Mota chain of cannabis dispensaries who in recent years became a prominent donor to Kotek and other top Democrats.

Kotek had not responded to the document, first reported by Willamette Week, as of Monday morning. She has previously denied her decision to fire Marks had anything to do with Cazares.

The possible lawsuit marks the latest turn in a series of events that claimed the political career of former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. Fagan resigned in May, after news emerged she’d accepted a lucrative consulting agreement with Cazares and her partner, Aaron Mitchell, even as the secretary of state’s office was auditing state cannabis regulations.

Marks’ notice of a possible lawsuit makes the case that he first attracted Cazares’ ire in 2018, when the OLCC cited one of her companies for mishandling nearly 150 pounds of cannabis. He argues that Cazares and Mitchell began making major donations to Democrats as a way to steer state cannabis policy in their favor. Together, the pair has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting political campaigns since 2019.

“What Cazares’ largesse purchased was the leverage to have Marks pushed out of office when his work concerning Oregon’s cannabis industry stood in her way,” the notice says. “In short, because Marks supported and carried out regulations that Cazares saw as onerous, she bought his ouster through financial graft.”

The document offers no proof connecting his firing to Kotek’s friendly relationship with Cazares and Mitchell, who sponsored fundraising events for the candidate as she ran a hotly contested race for governor last year. Marks did not return a call seeking comment on Monday and his attorney, William Gary, said in an email he would allow the document to speak for itself.

Questioned about her decision to fire Marks this year, the governor has been vague.

“Director Marks I think had been there for almost 10 years. It was time for a change,” Kotek said in May when KLCC asked about the decision. “There was no relation to La Mota.”

Kotek’s staff informed Marks in late January that the governor was requesting his resignation. That was well after Kotek had alerted some other agency directors they would not be welcome in her administration. The heads of both the Oregon Lottery and Office of Emergency Management, for instance, were informed in December they’d be let go, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

In his notice of a lawsuit, Marks says Kotek never offered any reason for requesting his resignation, but that “he believed that Governor Kotek should be allowed to select her own team of key managers and he agreed to step down.”

Marks’ resignation was official as of Feb. 13. By that point, the OLCC was embroiled in a scandal that involved Marks and other top officials reserving bottles of rare whiskeys for their own purchase. Kotek has said she was not aware of that practice at the time she decided to fire Marks.

“The situation on ‘bourbongate’ I think validates my concerns about his leadership,” Kotek said in May.

But Marks sees Kotek’s admission that the bourbon scandal had nothing to do with her decision as telling.

“It is evident that Governor Kotek pushed Marks out of office because Cazares made it known – either directly or through then-Secretary Fagan – that she wanted him gone and had paid the financial cost to see those plans bear fruit.”

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.
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