SBPD Chief Puts Embattled Aide on Paid Leave, Orders Probe -- Wagner Defends "Honor...Integrity"
In a swift and politically savvy move, Interim Chief Barney Melekian on Monday ordered an independent investigation of allegations swirling around police department spokesman Anthony Wagner's involvement in awarding the city's retail pot licenses.
Wagner was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, which was triggered by a 4,000-word piece published over the weekend by Los Angeles Magazine, which we've written about here.
Our interview with Mitchell Kriegman, author of the article, is on our YouTube channel here.
"Most of these allegations have been previously investigated, either within the police department or by the city attorney’s office," Melekian said in a brief written statement.
"In addition, the City prevailed in a federal lawsuit by one of the unsuccessful cannabis permit applicants, which was dismissed in December 2019," he noted. "Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Magazine article makes new allegations concerning the nature of Mr. Wagner’s role in the process of the awarding of cannabis licenses that support further investigation."
In a telephone interview, Melekian told Newsmakers the key issue to be examined would be Wagner's relationship to two men -- Micah Anderson and Adam Knopf - with whom he had previous dealings in San Diego and who were connected in the article with a Santa Barbara retail license for a company called Golden Greens; the company never opened a proposed pot store on upper State Street, instead flipping the license, reportedly for millions of dollars, to a Florida company called Jushi, as first reported by Josh Molina.
"A lot of this stuff (in the magazine article) is old," the chief said. "This issue with these people in San Diego does deserve another look."
Melekian said that he plans to contract with "a firm that specializes in third party investigations...with a skill set in the financial area." At least "portions" of the investigative report would be made public, he added, but until he saw the finished work product he would not know much of the report would be released.
As a political matter, Melekian's move takes the steam out of an issue which has roiled City Hall in recent days, quickly spilling over into the mayor's race; Mayor Cathy Murillo told Newsmakers on Sunday she favored such an independent investigation, presaging the Chief's decision, shortly after rivals James Joyce and Deborah Schwartz did the same.
What Wagner said. Wagner, who came to Santa Barbara from San Diego to work for recently-retired Chief Lori Luhnow, released a statement in which he said he welcomed the investigation, and attacked the article, the magazine and Kriegman, who has had a long career as a television writer, as "a theatrical writer."
Here is Wagner's statement:
I am in full support and welcome a thorough third-party investigation to clear my good name of these unsubstantiated accusations. I am confident in the process, without reservation.
Just because a theatrical writer puts words into existence does not make them true. The Story in LA Magazine violates basic journalistic ethical standards and due diligence. The piece misstates and misrepresents my background, significant events in my life, and past professional interactions and personal relationships.
As has already been brought to light in Santa Barbara-based media, the story was not adequately fact checked by LA Magazine as evidenced in the multiple errors that have been previously documented with trusted local media.
Despite the fact that I personally provided him my direct phone number and email address -- the author did not reach out to me for comment prior to submission. In a flagrantly surreptitious and underhanded attempt to circumnavigate communication with me, he instead submitted public records requests to the City.
Now it will take a formal inquiry and exhaustive due process to restore my sterling professional reputation.
I have served the people of Santa Barbara for four-years with honor and integrity. The investigation will yield as such.
Kriegman did not respond to a request for comment about Wagner's remarks.
Images: Interim Chief Barney Melekian; Anthony Wagner (SB Independent).