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Jason Washington’s letter to the editor

Jason Washington’s letter to the editor

Washington wrote this letter after an article was published on July 31st regarding Ravalli County dropping charges against him.

Jason Washington says he was targeted for drug charges

The medical marijuana businessman who was convicted last spring on federal charges of distributing and manufacturing marijuana says he was unfairly targeted because of his status as a former University of Montana football player and a successful African-American entrepreneur.

Jason Washington broke his post-trial media silence Tuesday in a phone interview with the Missoulian from a private prison in Shelby.

“It’s been a blatant, mean, ugly attack,” he said.

His medical marijuana business, Big Sky Medical Marijuana Dispensary, was one of the largest operations in the state, which also made it appealing to federal investigators, he said.

And in targeting such a high-profile community member, he contended, prosecutors were able to shut the door on Missoula’s flourishing medical marijuana industry.

“The simple fact is there are still dispensaries in Butte,” Washington said. “They said this is against federal law … then why are there still dispensaries in the state of Montana and 18 other states?”

***

Washington argued he isn’t some counterculture icon who advocated for marijuana by getting high outside on the courthouse steps, but rather he’s a young entrepreneur who was trying to support a growing family.

He wanted to take advantage of the burgeoning medical marijuana industry in Montana and started his business venture in 2010 by opening dispensaries in Hamilton and Missoula.

“I couldn’t ignore the financial gains for a legitimate businessman,” Washington said. “That’s why I was involved – for the American Dream.

“I would never be involved if it was illegal in the state in Montana,” he said.

And the businesses were extremely lucrative.

Washington said the dispensaries had the potential to earn $1 million a year.

He claims he paid his taxes, set up the businesses to comply with state and local laws, and cooperated with both municipalities.

As for the federal statute that still treats marijuana as a dangerous drug, Washington said he wasn’t worried.

“My understanding was the federal government would only come after people who were in clear violation of state law,” Washington explained.

On Nov. 16, 2011, two of Washington’s businesses – the Missoula dispensary and his 406 Motoring automotive shop – were raided by law enforcement officers.

That followed a Nov. 8 incident in which officers went into the Hamilton dispensary and found employee Bradley Bjorkland in possession of marijuana. According court documents, Washington was aware that Bjorkland had no legal status to possess marijuana under the Montana Medical Marijuana Act.

Washington was eventually convicted of two felony charges – conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

Two separate charges filed by the Ravalli County Attorney’s Office on May 7, 2013, were dropped.

***

Federal prosecutors would have agreed to a plea deal, but Washington decided to plead not guilty, believing he was innocent under Montana law.

His attorney, Kwame Manley of Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“I took it to trial because I thought people – Montanans – would stand up for Montana laws,” he said.

He was certain that a jury of Washington’s peers would find him not guilty.

During the trial, though, Washington believes he was intentionally painted as an inner-city thug. He said federal prosecutor Tara Elliott likened him once to the infamous mobster John Gotti – to which Manley objected.

She also played recordings of conversations between Washington and his family and friends in California using inner-city slang, again to portray him as a dangerous drug dealer, he said.

Washington was sentenced to two years in federal prison – a sentence that prosecutors are appealing in hopes of securing a five-year sentence.

“If I could do it all over again, I probably would have taken a plea deal,” Washington said.

So far, he has spent 99 days of his sentence in three different detention facilities and will transfer from Shelby to Nevada at an undesignated date in the future. He hopes to spend the remainder of his sentence close to his family in California.

After he gets out of prison, Washington plans to bring his 19 new business ideas to a state other than Montana.

“When I needed help, Montana didn’t stand up for me – not the city, not the state, and not the citizens who sat on the jury,” he said.

We have a right to know

Freedom of the Press is arguably the most fundamental pillar to upholding a democracy.

Without the transparency it offers, government and its officials are able to abuse their power with little to no repercussion. And as we know power corrupts. Absolute power, well that corrupts absolutely.

 I’ve seen it first hand. I lived in a Central Asian republic. It boasted a golden statue of the president, mounted on three legs towering over all the other buildings in an eerily quiet capital city.

People there didn’t speak of their leader except in hushed tones of reverence. My house was bugged, my phone calls mysteriously ended after exactly an hour. My mail was stolen, and I was followed.  

The leader’s portrait framed in gold and perched on high on every other building. Welcome to 1984: he’s big brother and he is staring down at his subjects at every turn. He named himself president for life, and he named his term the Golden Age.  

The government-run media bragged of his amazing feats, running photos of him clad in white and smiling – a benevolent leader. On the country’s only three TV channels – government owned — young students performed dances and sung him praise. Government officials donned their best attire to attend mandatory government functions, of which, he was center-stage. 

Turkmen media didn’t tell of the political prisoners, labor camps, abstract poverty, poor medical care, tuberculosis epidemic, or sale of women as brides. It didn’t talk about sexual assault, illiteracy, rampant drug use and prostitution, the political system, or the rising inflation. It didn’t speak of the rich expanses of gas reserves underneath its desert sands that Russia, China and the U.S. still drool over.

Then Turkmenbashy, self-named the head of all Turkmen, died. 

The westerners were somewhat hopeful. Internet became legal, albeit hard to obtain. The golden framed photos started to disappear. That obnoxious golden statue, dubbed three legs, was coming down.

Would the former soviet state open itself to information? With that information, could Turkmen demand a free media? With access to international media, would we see Turkmen rise and demand to be heard — voices that have literally been silenced since the dawn of the 20th century? Was this the beginning of a democracy?

In 2007, we were praying for an Arab Spring in Turkmenistan.

But the creepy portraits returned — this time of the newly appointed President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a dentist by trade, rumored to be the illegitimate son of Turkmenbashy.  A new golden statue of the Berdimuhamedov mounted on a horse, replaced three legs. The era was now named the Supreme Era of Happiness. Crowds of government employees greet the president wherever he goes, singing his praise and dancing.

And the Turkmen media continues to run puff stories, exalting their beloved leader.   

As a member of a faltering line of a vanishing press corps, I stand pen in hand, question in mind, ready to record what our society’s public officials, our criminals and our courts are doing.  

I don’t do it for the pay. I do it because we, as members of the public have a right to know and to hold our public servants accountable for their actions. We have a right to know where and how our tax dollars are being spent.

I do it because places like North Korea and Turkmenistan are frighteningly real. And without a free press, their leaders are free to do as they wish, with sickening disregard for the wellbeing of the majority of the little people who suffer the deadly consequences of their leaders’ selfish decisions.

A free press is a crucial element of keeping those in power in check.

Recently, I was contacted by the mother of Jason Washington, the former Griz football player who was convicted in the spring on federal drug charges for operating a medical marijuana business. She suggested that I interview him in prison while he was temporarily located to Missoula County.

We in the newsroom agreed. After all, he was operating a medical marijuana business when the business was booming and legal under state statute. The feds are presently attempting to appeal his sentence and replace it with a longer one. He is one of two that have served such severe sentences in Montana, and I have to ask, does he really deserve it?

Would our hard-earned tax money be better spent targeting methamphetamine dealers, building roads, schools, or improving the healthcare infrastructure?

Enter bureaucracy: the bane of my existence and the threat to transparency.

I called the jail Wednesday and was denied access until Thursday.

Thursday I called and asked to interview Washington.

Yes, you can see him Friday at 8:30 a.m. No pens, no paper, no recording devices, no camera, even though there is a glass panel between us, she said.

When I told her I was a member of the press, she rudely told me it didn’t matter.

It was rumored that he would leave tomorrow morning, though. Could I get in today?

 No. No. No.

I called the commander at the jail and she directed me to the federal marshals. The marshals said I needed to obtain written permission from both attorneys and the judge before I am able to interview him. That’s the policy that has been handed down to him from a supervisor on a national level.

“It’s for his own protection,” he said.

 I sniffed some serious B.S.

I called Washington’s mother in frustration. We decided he should call me from prison—a 20 minute phone call was better than nothing. To make a short story, long, it took me two hours, three credit cards and some maneuvering of identities between me and a fellow colleagues, before I was able to put money on the phone so Washington could call me.

Then, Friday morning, he moved prisons.

A free press is a pillar that stands between democracy and tyranny – as evidenced in the former soviet republics of Central Asia.  When the government intentionally darkens the glass of transparency with bureaucratic nonsense, we tread a very fine line. I can hurdle over the obstacles thrown at me, but these obstacles are no longer glitches in the road. They are impassable mountains.

 In short, it’s not for U.S. attorneys, a judge, or U.S. marshals to decide if I can interview a federal prisoner. In fact, they have no control over who I interview or what I write.  

If they prefer to have that control, I encourage them to visit Turkmenistan and experience firsthand the Supreme Era of Happiness. Try not to catch tuberculosis.  

There’s public interest in Jason Washington. We have a right to know.

Feds’ marijuana probe includes lawmakers, spurs discussion

Michael Moore’s story on the federal crackdown on medical marijuana is generating a lot of comment.

Turns out that inquiries by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents extend to lawmakers who worked to reform Montana’s messy medical marijuana situation.

They included Missoula’s Diana Sands, who was not amused:

“So now, if you’re a state legislator who has been working on medical marijuana laws, you are somehow part of a conspiracy,” said Sands, who represents House District 95 in Missoula and works as development director for the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. “It’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also threatening to think that the federal government is willing to use its influence and try to chill discussion about this subject.”

Sands isn’t the only one with concerns. At least one other legislator declined comment regarding DEA questions about the legislator’s duties out of concern over “additional harassment.”

Sands thinks the DEA is trying to send a message to people to steer clear of medical marijuana – even if their only involvement is working on legislation.

What do you think?

Gwen Florio

Curiouser and curiouser at Lake County Sheriff’s Office as undersheriff quits

Saying that “I am no longer the best man for the job,” Lake County Undersheriff Karey Reynolds – under investigation by the Montana Department of Justice – quit yesterday.

Missoulian reporter Vince Devlin, who’s been following the case, writes that Detective Dan Yonkin will take over as undersheriff Feb. 14.

Yonkin finished last in a three-way race to replace Sheriff Lucky Larson in 2010 that was won by then-Undersheriff Jay Doyle.

Allegations against both Doyle and Reynolds are currently under investigation by the Montana Department of Justice, at Doyle’s request.

That probe focuses on allegations of perjury against Reynolds and obstruction of justice against Doyle.

It is no secret that the Sheriff Office is going through a difficult time,” Reynolds wrote. “Rumors of officer wrongdoing continue to be rehashed despite the fact that the election is long past and that, like Elvis, previous administrations have left the building.”

Gwen Florio

Separate forums address sex assaults in Missoula

The issue of sexual assault was addressed at two separate forums in Missoula yesterday.

University of Montana President Royce Engstrom spoke with students, who recently returned from winter break, about the progress of an investigation into alleged sexual assaults involving UM students. That probe was launched just days before winter break began.

The Missoulian’s Chelsi Moy covered the meeting:

UM has a “legal and ethical obligation” under federal Title IX laws to investigate reports of sexual assault by students, Engstrom said. The university can’t tell local law enforcement whether to launch an investigation, he said, but federal law requires UM to do its own investigation.

And Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir (above, in Michael Gallacher’s photo) told the full house attending a City Council committee meeting that his department needs to do a better job communicating with rape victims.

“We will find ways to challenge our officers to become better communicators and to learn to be more accomplished at responding rather than reacting to confrontation as they face it in the course of their investigations,” Muir said.

See Missoulian reporter Keila Szpaller’s story for statistics on the outcome of sexual assault investigations by the Missoula Police Department.

Gwen Florio

Darkness descends on Cops & Courts. And, Griz player charged with rape

I can’t write that Cops and Courts is going dark because looking back, I realize — gulp — that the blog has been dark for awhile because I haven’t posted in a very long time indeed. Blame the holidays (cue a chorus of humbugs).

It’s not as if there’s no news. Friday night’s bombshell was huge:

University of Montana running back Beau Donaldson was being held in the Missoula County Detention Facility Friday evening on a charge of sexual intercourse without consent.

Donaldson was booked into the jail at 5:46 p.m. on a suggested bail of $100,000.

“It’s obviously a new development and we will continue to monitor the judicial process over the next few days, including Monday,” UM vice president Jim Foley said Friday night. Donaldson is scheduled for his initial appearance in Missoula County Justice Court on Monday at 2:30 p.m.

“Hopefully we will have further information about this over the course of the next couple of days,” Foley said.

Foley would not comment on whether Donaldson was arrested as part of an investigation announced Dec. 14 into alleged sexual assaults on campus of two female students, reportedly drugged, by multiple male students. At the time, neither of the women had made police reports.

The Missoulian will be following this story as it develops. But for the next couple of weeks, other reports will be taking up the task. Your Cops and Courts correspondent is going on vacation, so the blog will remain dark a little longer.

But when I get back, I’ll act on my New Year’s Resolution to be a posting fool.

Gwen Florio

(Image: allnewscience.blogspot.com)

UM hires outside investigator to look into alleged sexual assault

We’ll continue to follow this story as it develops:

The University of Montana has hired an outside investigator to review allegations of a recent sexual assault on campus that reportedly involved two female students, multiple male students and the date-rape drug Rohypnol.

UM Vice President Jim Foley told the Missoulian on Wednesday that former state Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz will arrive on campus Thursday to launch the investigation. UM has asked Barz to complete her review by year’s end, Foley said.

“From the president on down through senior administrators who have been involved in this discussion in the last few days, we all understand how serious these topics and allegations are, which is the reason why the president (Royce Engstrom) has instructed us to retain Judge Barz and have it completed by the end of the year,” he said.

Foley says UM students received electronic messages last week on the dangers of alcohol, drugs and date rape, and that forums on those subjects will be held during the spring semester.

Gwen Florio

Missoula County Sheriff’s Office turns season upside down. Oh, oh, oh?

There are varying explanations as to why the tree in the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department is hanging upside down. It was so crooked it looks better that way. The tree stand broke. Etc, etc. Whatever the reason, here’s the tree in all its inverted glory. FYI, the decorations are photos of the deputies and other office personnel.
Gwen Florio

Griz Nation could lead effort to end DUI

The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office has announced it will have extra patrols out tonight in conjunction with the Griz-Northern Iowa game, checking for drunk drivers. And today’s Missoulian has a great editorial on the same subject:

Here’s a suggestion for the newest Griz fan campaign: Let’s encourage designated drivers.

Last Saturday’s roster of DUI arrests was a sobering reminder of the need to encourage sober driving. Police arrested 13 people for DUI in the hours after the University of Montana Grizzly football team defeated Central Arkansas on our home turf. Thank heavens no one was seriously injured by a drunk driver last weekend. Reportedly, the most serious damage was done to a house that was driven into by an alleged drunk driver.

It could have been much, much worse. As it stands, 13 DUI arrests in a matter of hours is a shameful reflection on Missoula.

Obviously, not every person arrested for DUI last weekend was drinking while watching the Griz game, but the the fact is that drinking alcohol while watching football is an entrenched part of the local culture. And the fact is that this culture that does not always encourage responsible drinking.

Let’s start changing that culture tonight.

Gwen Florio

(Image: Five-Peaks.com)