Judge Blocks Suspended Massachusetts Cannabis Commission Chair’s Hearing

In September, Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission Treasurer Deborah Goldberg suspended Chairwoman Shannon O’Brien from her position, just a year after she was chosen to take on the role. Three people have held the chair since the commission was first created in 2018, though there was limited information as to why O’Brien received the suspension — until now.

Last week, court filings revealed an October letter authored by Goldberg to O’Brien, where she accused her of making “racially, ethnically and culturally insensitive statements,” CBS News reports.

On Tuesday, O’Brien was scheduled to appear in a hearing that could have potentially led to her firing, though a judge made the decision to suspend the meeting to a later date after O’Brien’s team indicated they were unprepared for the meeting and objected to some of the stipulations surrounding it.

Goldberg is now enjoined from holding the meeting until the court holds a hearing on O’Brien’s motion for a preliminary injunction, which is prompting the court to outline procedures for an eventual meeting between the two, “and until further order of the court.” Superior Court Judge Debra Squires-Lee requested that the clerk schedule a hearing on the injunction motion in 20 days.

“The ruling by the court today is the first step in getting my good reputation back after ten weeks of being smeared by the actions of Treasurer Goldberg in suspending me with no process in place for a fair and impartial hearing,” O’Brien said in a statement Tuesday. “The Treasurer wanted a private meeting with little or no procedural safeguards where she would be the judge, jury and executioner. The Treasurer, in her own words to me in a private meeting before nominating me as Chair, told me I needed to clean up the mess and dysfunction of the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC). Instead, the Treasurer has plunged the CCC into even more chaos.”

Goldberg’s communications director Andrew Naplitano said that the offices “respect[s] the court’s ruling” and indicated that the treasurer is ready to hear from O’Brien as soon as possible.

New details emerged on Friday, Dec. 1. Goldberg claimed O’Brien made a remark referring to an Asian person as “yellow.” Goldberg also alleges that O’Brien yelled at her executive assistant, along with inappropriately referencing a former executive director as “missing in action” while he was on paternity leave.

Goldberg also claimed that other staffers made allegations against O’Brien, referencing her behavior and creating a hostile work environment, at which point other investigators were called in. O’Brien had allegedly said, “I should have cleaned it up. It’s difficult sometimes to know how to say the right thing.”

O’Brien, who previously served as state treasurer and was a Democratic nominee for governor, said she is seeking a fair hearing process after her suspension. In September, she sued Goldberg over the suspension and claimed it was without merit.

O’Brien says that her career and reputation are on the line and sought an injunction to stop the private meeting on Tuesday to challenge her suspension, claiming the procedure is unfair and that the state treasurer should not be in charge of making the decision. She also objected to the hearing being private.

In court filings, O’Brien’s attorney Max Stern wrote, “under the circumstances the only likely outcome, unless relief is granted by this court, is that she will not only lose her job, but will go down in history as the former treasurer and commissioner who was fired for making racist statements and she will probably never work again.”

On Monday, Squires-Lee heard about 45 minutes of arguments surrounding the hearing’s potential delay, NBC Boston reports.

During the Monday hearing, Stern also indicated that O’Brien’s team is unprepared for the meeting, which was originally scheduled for early November and delayed to Dec. 5, and asked for another “two weeks or so” to prepare. Had the meeting carried on as planned, Stern said O’Brien’s team was not prepared to do anything more than make a statement on its position. 

In her latest court filing, O’Brien said that “none of the accusations have any merit,” and Stern also remained confident that the allegations wouldn’t hold weight.

“If you look at what she’s charged with and look at what really happened, I think you will find that these are laughable actually,” Stern said.

The court documents indicate O’Brien was removed because of accusations of “gross misconduct,” “causing turmoil” and “creating a hostile work environment,” along with making “racially insensitive comments.”

Stern suggested that O’Brien’s suspension “accompanied by suggestive and harmful public justifications by the Treasurer” has harmed O’Brien’s reputation, and that she’s entitled to a “name clearing” hearing.” Squires-Lee then pointed out that O’Brien and her legal team wanted to put the details of the allegations against her into the public domain by including them in last week’s court filings.

“The treasurer did not make public the nature of the allegations, you did,” Squires-Lee said.

Assistant Attorney General John Hitt said Monday that Goldberg intends to hold the hearing as scheduled unless Squires-Lee issues a temporary restraining order. The treasurer’s office also argued that it is within the public’s best interest to hold the meeting Tuesday, as taxpayers are paying O’Brien’s $181,722 annual salary during her suspension. 

“The Treasurer takes these allegations very seriously, which is why she wants to provide Chair O’Brien with the opportunity to address them without further delay, and with a fair process that provides an opportunity for her to do that,” Andrew Napolitano, Goldberg’s communications director, said Monday.

“In October, Chair O’Brien was so adamant about having this meeting that she went to court to demand it,” Napolitano continued. “Now, despite knowing about the allegations since September, she is asking to delay the meeting again. It is in the best interest of the taxpayers and the CCC that this meeting proceed.”

Squires-Lee refuted this argument. The judge argued that O’Brien would have continued to receive her salary as the Tuesday hearing could have potentially been the first of multiple hearings, adding that no decision surrounding O’Brien’s removal would have been rendered at this initial hearing. The judge argued that the public interest in a fair hearing was more important than a slight delay in proceedings.

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