The Marijuana Industry Group has helped the Colorado cannabis business develop into an awesome revenue machine that generates sales measured in the billions. But behind the scenes, MIG is embroiled in dueling Denver District Court lawsuits that pit the organization against Michael Elliott, its former executive director, in a fight that's witheringly nasty.
Elliot's complaint maintains that he was fired from his gig in June 2016 due largely to fallout from his rejection of sexual advances from a contract employee with the group. A few months later, he filed discrimination charges against the group with the Colorado Civil Rights Division — a prerequisite to a lawsuit, which was eventually filed in September 2017. But by then, MIG had already sued Elliott, arguing that he'd been sacked for misappropriating funds, among other things, and later retaliated by cooking up a fictional sexual harassment story that he then used in an unsuccessful effort to extort as much as $300,000.
Attorney Kimberlie Ryan initially agreed to discuss the matter with Westword alongside her client, Elliott, before withdrawing that offer and providing the following statement: "Mr. Elliott is fully committed to the legal process. He looks forward to the opportunity to speak about this when the time is right." Current MIG executive director Kristi Kelly also reversed course in regard to a Westword interview, ultimately opting to supply a single sentence via email: "MIG doesn't have any additional comment on the issue."
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That leaves the material in the two lawsuits, which we've chosen to summarize rather than publish in their entirety because of the myriad accusations fired off against third parties. We've referred to the latter generically rather than specifically.
The introduction to the Elliott suit charges that MIG (officially known as the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, its original moniker) and twelve other defendants "unlawfully discriminated and retaliated" against him because he "rejected unwelcome sexual advances" from the aforementioned contract worker, who allegedly had a "personal, intimate relationship with another MIG contractor, causing a conflict of interest."
After Elliott reported this conflict, the document goes on, MIG "took no remedial action and thereafter condoned and ratified [the contractor's] harassing conduct and retaliatory actions, which then escalated from a whisper campaign to an all-out smear campaign against Mr. Elliott for months, at the Colorado State Capitol and beyond." In the end, he believes, he was a victim of an "illegal firing."
In an effort to back up these assertions, the suit presents a slew of tantalizing details delivered in first-person style. Starting in 2015, Elliott states that the contractor "propositioned me for a personal relationship with her. I had known her for a long time. I was going through a divorce, and I was initially flattered and considered the possibility. However, I realized very quickly that it would be a bad idea, and I did not reciprocate her advances. I even sought legal advice as to my situation with MIG's counsel as to the propriety of inter-office relationships, and he advised me not to 'fish off the company's pier.' I agreed."
His decision supposedly didn't dampen the ardor of the contractor, who is said to have delivered a proposal to "fool around" while giving Elliott a ride in her car and "engaged in unwelcome talk of a sexual nature while we were working, including telling me how much she loves sex." But after he rejected her, she supposedly "ignored my communications, acted rude and abusive to me, and interfered with our work over the course of several months, until the harassment finally culminated in the termination of my employment in June 2016."
Along the way, Elliott recounts a conversation with a dispensary owner associated with MIG, who supposedly told him that if he filed a lawsuit, "MIG will pursue this for as long as it takes, and because I don't have another income, they will make me go broke. He then shared a story from his own past about a lawsuit he was involved with that took $100,000 and two years to complete. He said MIG will drag it out that long. [The owner] told me I should move out of state.... He also said that I should drop the whole thing because the optics would be really bad for the industry."
That's not all. The following year, according to Elliott, MIG anonymously sent copies of its "defamatory" lawsuit against him to new clients he'd managed to line up as part of a campaign to "intimidate me and potential witnesses."
The suit in question is certainly filled with fiery material. For one thing, it alleges that Elliott "increased his total compensation by an additional $500/month without permission or disclosure" to the organization's Board of Directors — a move that supposedly netted him more than $15,000 extra by the time he was dismissed.
There are also different takes on material from Elliott's suit — including his consultation with the group's counsel about office dating. The MIG claim's version states in part that he "indicated...that he was separated from his spouse and was going through the dissolution of marriage process, also stating that he himself was free to date other people besides his spouse, and that he was intrigued by how many young women working in the marijuana industry had expressed an interest in him."
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The section adds that during the conversation, "Mr. Elliott never indicated that he was upset, harassed, troubled, intimidated or offended by anything or anybody. To the contrary, Mr. Elliott's statements to MIG's counsel in the summer of 2015 indicated that he was pleased to be the subject of romantic attention."
Additionally, the lawsuit states that the contractor complained about Elliott's "unwanted overtures," not the other way around — and after his firing, "Mr. Elliott had his personal lawyer write to MIG...claiming more than $500,000 in damages for discrimination and numerous other alleged grievances. Mr. Elliott then sought to extort a so-called 'settlement' — which more closely resembled a threat to inflict significant legal expense on MIG...if it became necessary to defend itself...against Mr. Elliott's alleged claims."
At various times, the suit contends, "Mr. Elliott proposed to resolve his charges if MIG would pay him an amount equal to $200,000-$300,000, which included the value of two-three years lump-sum salary and benefits, together with three months paid vacation."
The two lawsuits have been consolidated into a single legal action that's presently in the discovery process. There's no telling if the dispute will eventually make its way into a public courtroom. If it does, the assorted parties may have trouble squeezing inside, given all the dirty laundry.