Wearing a gray pinstriped suit with his hair gelled into a faux-hawk, Dhar Mann broke into a smile as an Oakland City Council member showed up for the grand reopening of his store, weGrow, known as the “Wal-Mart of weed.”
“Hey, man. How you doin’?” Mann said before clasping Councilman Larry Reid’s hand and pulling him in close for a chest bump, a videotape of the event shows.
On that sunny afternoon in 2010, Oakland was on track to become a hub for medical marijuana businesses. Like other city leaders, Reid – who was introduced by Mann as “Larry Weed” – saw giant pot farms as an untapped source of tax revenue for a perennially cash-strapped city.
That created an entrée for Mann to build his pot empire on the local political relationships that his parents, owners of the largest cab company in Oakland, had spent decades building. Mann’s rise offers a look at behind-the-scenes city politics and business dealings that fueled the pot boom in Oakland.
From his first store in Oakland, Mann grew to become a national figure, expanding weGrow across the country. He was featured in “Green Rush,” a 2011 National Geographic documentary, and countless news reports. But as federal raids threaten to topple the quasi-legal marijuana industry in California, Mann’s Midas touch in Oakland has lost its luster.
On May 17, Mann, now 28, was indicted on charges of defrauding the city of Oakland out of $44,000 in redevelopment grants. The Alameda County district attorney charged Mann with 13 felony counts, alleging that he paid contractors who fixed up old buildings less than he told the city he had – and pocketed the difference. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday.
Days after Mann’s indictment, city officials revoked a permit to open a new medical marijuana dispensary granted to G8 Medical Alliance, a business registered to Mann and led by people who worked with weGrow and his real estate company, MannEdge Properties.
Mann did not respond to repeated requests for comment or detailed questions sent via email about his relationships with Oakland politicians. One lawyer who represents Mann did not return calls seeking comment. Another lawyer, Eduardo Roy – who is representing Mann in the criminal case – declined to comment on the record. When a reporter visited the East Oakland headquarters of the family’s taxi company, Friendly Cab, an employee called Mann, who told her to order the reporter off the premises.
Newly obtained emails and a police report, however, offer hints of Mann’s close relationship with Reid – now the City Council president – and other city leaders.
Mann grew up around the city’s leaders. Reid had been a critic of medical marijuana, but when Mann opened weGrow near the Oakland airport, in Reid’s council district, Reid was supportive.
“Dhar is probably one of the smartest and brightest young men I know,” Reid said before the May indictment. “He came up with a concept that everybody thought was interesting and unique, and he was the focus of attention across the country.”
Reid also looked out for Mann. An April 2, 2010, police report shows Reid tipped off Christopher Miller, a friend and employee of Mann’s, about an Oakland police raid of his marijuana-growing operation.
The councilman says he simply confirmed with police that the raid was in progress and then told Miller, through Mann, to get an attorney.
“I would do that for any constituent,” Reid said.
But Councilwoman Jane Brunner said she had never heard of city council members taking similar action during police raids.
“I think generally as a city councilperson, if the police are involved in some action, it’s best to not be involved,” Brunner said.
When election season came, Mann advised liquor scion Ben Bronfman, who was seeking one of the city’s scarce pot farm permits, to donate heavily to Reid’s re-election campaign, according to an email Mann sent Bronfman on Sept. 10, 2010.
“The reason I would go heavy is Reid has the largest commercial district in the City of Oakland, and most groups looking for space end up in his district, who are all trying to win over his favoritism,” Mann wrote in the email sent one month before the weGrow reopening celebration.
Bronfman, constant tabloid fodder because of his relationship with rapper M.I.A., later abandoned his Oakland plans and now is focusing on green technology. When contacted for comment, he said he was reluctant to speak for any story that might cast medical marijuana in a negative light.
2010 campaign donations
The rush to get a piece of the marijuana business in Oakland coincided with the 2010 city election, including a hotly contested three-way mayoral race with then-City Councilwoman Jean Quan, former state Sen. Don Perata and Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan.
Quan received at least $5,300 from businesses, employees and people with ties to weGrow, Mann’s real estate company and the family’s taxi company. Perata got $7,100, including a $5,000 donation from Navjoyt Nagra, Mann’s friend and banker, to a political action committee that supported Perata. Mann himself was not a big individual giver.
In addition, Councilwoman Desley Brooks received $1,900 from businesses, employees and others with ties to weGrow and the family’s taxi company. Mann’s family also hosted a fundraiser for former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s 2010 campaign for governor.
When Bronfman decided to test the medical marijuana market that fall, he turned to Mann. He agreed to pay $50,000 to the consulting firm of Mann and former business associate Derek Peterson, according to a lawsuit filed by Peterson – who claimed he didn’t get his share of the fee.
“I can handle all of your lobbying, I just need a budget and a face,” Mann wrote to Bronfman in the September 2010, email. Mann was never registered as an Oakland city lobbyist, according to filings with the city.
Mann also urged Bronfman’s team to donate to several campaigns. Although the individual campaign contribution limit is $700 per candidate, in the email, Mann advised Bronfman that his team could write checks to the same candidate from different entities.
“How would you like to handle the fundraising?” Mann wrote. “We need to decide how much you'd like to contribute and from which entity's (all contributions are public record so the account you write the check from is a strategic decision. Regardless the recipient will know it came from your group).”
For Bronfman’s team, Mann had recommended writing “3-4 checks ($2,100-$2,800)” for Brooks, Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, Councilwoman Pat Kernighan and Quan. For the influential Perata, he recommended “8-10 checks” because “the new mayor chooses the City Administrator, who ultimately makes permitting decisions.” Mann also recommended “8-10 checks” for Reid.
With Kaplan, Mann wrote that he’d “already purchased several tables at her event next week which we can share, so this should run around $2k (3 checks).”
Under California campaign finance law, it is illegal to circumvent campaign limits by making donations through multiple accounts, according to Bob Stern, a campaign finance expert.
“It depends on whether the checks are from separate individuals or businesses (not controlled by the same person) or whether they are all from the same person,” Stern wrote in an email.
Campaign records indicate that in the end, Bronfman made one $700 donation to Kaplan under his name.