Medical marijuana: Greenway U. had just 112 students, owner had another conviction

Update: Greenway University, which specializes in marijuana-related instruction, was closed by the state in part because owner Gus Escamilla didn't disclose a 2000 conviction on a license application. We've now obtained documents showing another conviction, this one in 2003 -- and a Department of Higher Education spokesman says GU has only had 112 students to date, not the 3,000 Escamilla mentioned.

During an interview on Wednesday, Escamilla confirmed that he had a 2000 conviction for felony grand theft by embezzlement. He said his improper actions flowed from a series of personal and financial setbacks caused by a 1999 diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and subsequent radiation and chemotherapy treatment that went on for a couple of years. But he made no mention of other encounters with the law -- including one that reportedly took place from late 2001 to early 2003.

According to documents from the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, on view in their entirety below, Gustavo Escamilla Isquierdo, Escamilla's full name, was accused of committing felony grand theft on December 20, 2001, by taking a 2002 Mercedes Benz. Additional allegations include identity theft, for unlawfully obtaining personal identifying information from one Shannon Orisio without her consent; forgery for signing Orisio's name and that of a Hector Andrade with an intent to defraud; and making a false financial statement "by using a ficitious name, social security number, business name, business address and by representing himself to be another person and business."

Circa early 2003, a three-year sentence on the grand theft count was suspended in favor of probation for the same length of time. Escamilla was also directed to pay restitution to Orisio in the amended amount of $7,080.20. In addition, he was ordered to stay away and not associate with her.

Regarding the number of students at Greenway, he responded to a question on that subject by saying that "we've seen over 3,000 students since we've started" -- rather vague phrasing. As for the specifics, Colorado Department of Higher Education spokesman Chad Marturano says the number of individuals who paid a state-required, per-student fee was 112.

We've requested a followup interview with Escamilla. When and if he responds, we'll update this post. Look below for the aforementioned California court documents, which can also be accessed by clicking here, and our earlier coverage.

State of California vs. Gustavo Escamilla Isquierdo -- April 2003

Update, 2:28 p.m. July 27: As we reported earlier today, officials have temporarily shut down Greenway University, Colorado's first state-licensed medical marijuana school, after discovering owner and CEO Gus Escamilla and a chancellor both had felony convictions that weren't mentioned in the GU application. However, Escamilla describes the situation as a temporary setback and expects Greenway to be back in operation soon.

Escamilla doesn't deny that in 2000, while living in California, he pleaded guilty to felony grand theft by embezzlement. "That all stemmed from me having Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma," he maintains. "I was diagnosed in 1999, and I went through two years of radiation and chemotherapy. It was a very troubling time for me personally. I probably lost a hundred pounds, and when you've got such a serious illness and you're losing your business" -- he says he ran a mortgage and real estate office at the time -- "some things just don't get put in priority the way they should."

Why did he answer "no" to a question about past felony convictions on Greenway University's application form?

"I was under the impression that the case had been expunged," he allows. "I had an attorney that we paid to do that, and I assumed everything was okay -- because when you expunge a case in California, the guilty plea is set aside and they dismiss the case. But I later found out that the attorney is no longer around. She's been disbarred and fled to Mexico with a lot of clients' money."

As for chancellor Marc Kent, who reportedly had a past mail fraud conviction, Escamilla insists that an instructor application submitted for him included this factoid, but somehow, "the state doesn't have the information." He adds that Kent "has never taught at our campus" and the conviction took place in 1989.

Not that Escamilla rips state officials for their actions. "We respect their decision, and we'll work directly with them to get any and all information," he emphasizes -- and he hopes that once board members have had a chance to consider the Greenway presentation, the school will be allowed to start up again.

According to him, "we've had zero complaints from any students" -- approximately 3,000 have passed through GU's doors to date, he estimates -- "and we get overwhelming reviews. Ultimately, it's about the patients and the students, which is why we'll continue to move forward in a positive direction."

That means sticking around rather than hitting the road, Escamilla adds. "We're rooted here. We're embedded here. Colorado has been great to us. We love the community, love everything we've been able to accomplish, and we're not going anywhere. We'll continue to work toward a resolution, and we intend on remaining an integral part of the community."

One more thing: After the initial publication of this post, Colorado Department of Higher Education spokesman Chad Marturano called to note that CDHE officials are now exploring the possibility of conducting criminal background checks on new applicants for state licensure, including recruiters -- something that's not part of its statutory mandate at present.

Look below for our earlier coverage.

Original item, 9:57 a.m. July 27: In June 2010, Greenway University became Colorado's first state-licensed medical marijuana school -- but that designation is in serious jeopardy.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education's Division of Private Occupational Schools board has temporarily suspended operations at Greenway, and an impending hearing could make that judgment permanent.

As reported by 7News, this action was taken after officials discovered that owner and CEO Gus Escamilla, who has not responded to an interview request at this writing, had inaccurately claimed on the license application that he had never been convicted of a felony. In fact, he pleaded guilty to felony grand theft by embezzlement in California circa 2000. Moreover, the application also failed to note that chancellor Marc Kent had previously pleaded guilty to mail fraud.

Shouldn't the state have stumbled upon these factoids prior to approving Greenway's license? Turns out that's not how the process works, says Department of Higher Education spokesman Chad Marturano.

"The law doesn't give us the ability to do criminal background checks," Marturano reveals. "When we were set up, that wasn't part of the statutory charge. When people fill out the application, it's self-disclosing -- and by signing the document, they swear an oath that it's completely accurate. But for us to be able to do a criminal background check, we would have to have a broader scope -- and while I'm sure that was debated when we were set up, back in 1981, we weren't given that charge."

So how did the state become aware of the discrepancy? It's Marturano's understanding that a complaint was filed, prompting personnel to do a web search, as opposed to a formal criminal background check. At that point, the truth was discovered, and the board was informed.

"We're not an academic accrediting agency," Marturano stresses. "We're more like a consumer protection agency. Typically, occupational schools are profit-driven, so it's basically a business. And the board looked at this to fulfill its statutory charge of making sure any schools out there are in good standing, and that we're protecting folks against possibly fraudulent business practices."

According to Marturano, "the board gave Greenway an opportunity to respond to these findings prior to their decision -- and they provided us with a binder of documents to indicate where they're coming from." Nonetheless, the school has been placed on what's deemed a summary suspension, "which ceases any course instruction or ability to enroll new students," he continues. "There'll be a formal hearing to be scheduled within the next thirty days, and sometime after that period, a hearing will be held where the board will determine if they should be restored or closed."

Can Greenway still win the state's blessing? Or is it doomed?

"There's definitely a statutory process as to how this will unfold," Marturano notes. "And one thing directly cited in statute says that owners, officers, agents, administrators and instructors must be 'of good reputation and free from moral turpitude.' And in making their determination, the board has the application that asks, 'Have you ever committed a felony?' And the response was inaccurate, for whatever reason."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Greenway University plans to build 'premier worldwide medical marijuana training facility' in Denver."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts