Former Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) director Steve Marks led the agency for almost a decade but was fired in January. Now Marks is fighting back and claiming that Gov. Tina Kotek fired him because of the influence of a cannabis business owner.
According to the Willamette Week, Marks recently filed a tort claim notice (or a notice of claim against a specific agency to address wrongdoing and announce plans to sue) in Oregon, claiming that Rosa Cazares, CEO of La Mota, and her partner, Aaron Mitchell, who contributed to Kotek’s gubernatorial campaign, had a part in the decision that led to his firing. “Marks was summarily forced out of office by Gov. Tina Kotek in early 2023 because Rosa Cazares, prominent owner of one of Oregon’s largest dispensary chains and an opponent of cannabis regulations, wanted him gone,” the claim states, as submitted by attorney William Gary. “Cazares placed herself in close orbit to the governor and to then-Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.”
Cazares and Mitchell gave $68,000 to Kotek when she was running for governor (she took office in January). They also had a monthly $10,000 contract to fund Fagan—an arrangement that led to Fagan’s resignation in May.
Willamette Week added that Kotek has denied having any partnership with Cazares and Mitchell, but Marks’ tort claim challenges that statement. The case also points to a 2018 event where Cazares and Mitchell were accused of contributing 148 pounds of cannabis to the black market. The case was settled from 2020, which was the same year that records show Cazares and Mitchell were contributing funds to various politicians.
“In short, because Marks supported and carried out regulations that Cazares saw as onerous, she bought his ouster through financial graft,” the claim stated. “It was under Marks’ leadership that OLCC adopted and enforced the regulatory framework that Cazares sought to dismantle…Accordingly, Cazares turned her sights to removing Marks from office.”
In a letter written by Gary, there was no explanation for why Kotek fired Marks. “Governor Kotek did not provide—and she still has not provided—any reason for having pushed Marks out of his position, and Marks was provided no other notice or opportunity to contest the reasons for that action,” Gary wrote.
In May, Kotek told OregonLive that she fired Marks because she wanted to see new leadership at the head of the OLCC, but alleged that Cazares and Mitchell “…had no bearing on the decision I made,” Kotek said. She claimed that replacing Marks was one of many changes she made when she took office. She also added that she wasn’t supportive of a new state liquor warehouse in Canby, Oregon planned by the OLCC, which would cost millions of dollars. Under Marks’ leadership, the OLCC spent $84 million on bonding authority for that warehouse, but eventually made a deal to pay $40.7 million for 33 acres for the warehouse to be paid by the state.
“The freshest thing in my mind was the issue around the new warehouse because when I was on the campaign trail I remember having quite a few expletives about the deal on that warehouse and I was like, come on, you’ve been at this for eight years and we got a bad deal on that warehouse?” Kotek said. “He was on a list that was like I think we need a new direction here.” But she also said she had made the decision to fire Marks prior to her knowledge of the warehouse deal.
In 2022, six OLCC managers (Marks included) were caught setting aside Pappy Van Winkle bourbon from Kentucky for themselves in an investigation. All of them were reprimanded, and eventually they were all either fired or resigned from their positions.