La Mota Is Crumbling, the Feds Are Circling, and CEO Rosa Cazares Appears to Be Out

The fallout from an extraordinary saga continues.

Rosa Cazares at an Emerge Oregon event. (Andie Petkus)

The most significant story in state politics in 2023 was the influence a troubled cannabis outfit exerted on state government.

In March, WW reported that La Mota co-founders Rosa Cazares and Aaron Mitchell and their many limited liability companies faced more than $7 million in state and federal tax liens and had been sued by a host of former business partners and vendors (“Strange Budfellows,” March 29). At the same time, Cazares and Michell had become leading campaign contributors to some of Oregon’s top elected officials, including Gov. Tina Kotek and then-Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

A month later, WW broke the news that Fagan, who was a heartbeat away from the governor’s office and tasked with safeguarding the integrity of Oregon elections, had signed a $10,000-a-month consulting contract with Mitchell and Cazares. Records showed Fagan had pushed state auditors repeatedly to consult Cazares on an audit of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which regulated La Mota (“Up in Smoke,” WW, May 5).

The revelations dashed the political prospects of one of the rising stars of Oregon’s Democratic Party. Fagan resigned days after WW’s story, which also prompted a federal investigation.

That probe is now arriving on Portland doorsteps. Last week, WW reported that special agents with the FBI and IRS had been knocking on doors, asking former La Mota associates detailed questions about the duo’s business model, financial practices, political involvement, and lifestyle. A federal subpoena shows the U.S. Department of Justice also wants a look at Fagan’s state tax filings.

Whether it was the feds closing in, years of festering tensions, or something else entirely, Rosa Cazares late last week left La Mota, according to a text message between two La Mota managers, reviewed by WW.

Mitchell has taken over the company, one manager told the other, and Cazares is out. (Oregon business registry records don’t yet reflect Cazares’ departure.)

Publicly, Cazares was the face of La Mota. She appeared in cannabis magazines and promotional materials. While Mitchell had more extensive experience growing pot, Cazares had the charm that gained the couple an audience with the governor and secretary of state. As a young woman of color with a rags-to-riches story of growing up poor in a Texas border town, Cazares was, as one friend described her, “a unicorn.”

Neither Cazares nor Mitchell have responded to a request for comment, nor did they confirm Cazares’ apparent departure.

Aaron Mitchell at a black-tie gala hosted for Gov. Kotek. (Andie Petkus)

La Mota’s involvement in state politics appears to have started not long after the company was accused of diverting cannabis illegally.

In February 2018, a state inspector for the OLCC found 49 cardboard boxes filled with unlabeled and untracked cannabis at a warehouse in White City, just 40 miles north of the California border.

The inspector, Marty Rowley, thought that could mean only one thing.

“This 148 pounds could have or was going to be diverted,” Rowley wrote in his report. By “diverted,” Rowley meant shipped from a licensed cannabis business to the illicit market.

The report sparked a two-year legal battle pitting Mitchell and Cazares, the controlling partners of the LLC that operated out of the building, against the OLCC. The duo adamantly fought the charges of illegal diversion. They hired a bulldog attorney and reached a settlement with the state, getting off with a mere $16,335 fine.

During this brush with the law, the couple made their first campaign contribution—a curious move since they’d voted only once before in Oregon, in 2014.

As WW has chronicled, Cazares and Mitchell, originally from Florida, then climbed the ranks of political influence in Oregon’s Democratic Party for the next two years. They hosted champagne fundraisers at a rented mansion in the West Hills, black-tie galas, and even a pickleball tournament to benefit Tina Kotek’s run for governor. Cazares was appointed vice chair of Emerge Oregon, a powerhouse political training academy for women.

Following Fagan’s resignation over the moonlighting scandal, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal inquiry into the secretary’s relationship with Mitchell and Cazares. So did the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. The Oregon Department of Justice hired a California law firm to assess the integrity of the OLCC audit.

Meanwhile, another Oregon politician’s relationship with the duo would soon catch up to her.

Val Hoyle, commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries until she took office in the U.S. House of Representatives at the beginning of this year, had a long history with Cazares.

In March 2021, Hoyle dined with Cazares at the Portland City Grill to discuss funding for a cannabis apprenticeship program. In the fall of 2022, Hoyle helped steer a half-million dollar grant to a brand-new nonprofit co-founded by Cazares. The nonprofit’s headquarters was listed as a storage unit in Beaverton, and it had no prior history of running apprenticeships. After WW reported on the couple in March, current Labor Commissioner Christina Stevenson demanded that the nonprofit return all unused funds.

As Hoyle left BOLI at the end of 2022, agency records staff asked her, as is common practice, to turn over records of text messages on her cellphone that dealt with state business. By law, those are public records. After 11 months, Hoyle finally turned over the records to BOLI, but only after she removed texts she claimed were not related to her job at the agency—a move public records advocates say is an affront to transparency.

Rosa Cazares at a pickleball tournament she hosted for Gov. Kotek. (Andie Petkus)

Since news of La Mota’s influence on state government broke this spring, leading to the federal probe, Oregon’s cannabis power couple have gone dark.

Besides one television interview, Mitchell and Cazares have refused media requests for comment. The two have cycled through a number of public relations professionals hired to do damage control for their company. And, in June, a 19-year-old nanny for their daughter was indicted on felony charges after being arrested following a high-speed chase by police while at the wheel of Mitchell’s car, which police records say contained a drunken Mitchell as a passenger. According to subpoena records issued to state agencies, Mitchell and Cazares are living in separate apartments in Portland.

La Mota has shut down a couple of its Oregon dispensaries while continuing to expand operations in New Mexico, where records show Cazares met with Lt. Gov. Howie Morales this spring and contributed to his reelection campaign last fall. (Morales has refused to answer questions from WW about his relationship with Cazares and Mitchell.) The millions in tax liens remain outstanding.

“Because La Mota’s behavior has been so damning, faith in the cannabis trade is at an all-time low,” says Nathan Howard, co-founder of East Fork Cultivars. “It’s just an all-around bummer. The days and the weeks I don’t think about cannabis are some of my favorite.”

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