U.S. Rep. Val Hoyle (D-Ore.) left her position as Oregon labor commissioner at the beginning of the year to assume her congressional seat. But questions from Hoyle’s time at the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries continue to follow her—including her relationship with the charismatic co-founders of the embattled La Mota dispensary chain, Aaron Mitchell and Rosa Cazares.
The duo—who share a young child together and control close to 30 dispensaries across the state, along with multiple farms, warehouses and processing facilities—became prominent political donors to top Oregon Democrats over the past three years until a series of stories published by WW that culminated in the scandal involving former secretary of state Shemia Fagan dashed their rising political influence. Hoyle was one of many Democratic leaders to receive campaign contributions from the cannabis moguls, but her involvement with them—pieced together through various records—raised questions about her relationship with the duo.
Most notable is a $554,000 grant BOLI awarded to a nonprofit co-founded by Cazares last fall called ENDVR. While the Oregon State Apprenticeship and Training Council, which operates under BOLI, ultimately approved the grant, Hoyle personally vouched for the nonprofit and its leadership. After it was clear at a July 27, 2022, meeting that the council would not vote to give ENDVR the grant, Hoyle postponed the vote for a month and directed ENDVR to answer more questions and come back with a stronger proposal. At the next meeting, the council approved the grant.
ENDVR had no previous track record, and received 501(c)(3) status less than two weeks before applying. (WW later reported that the grant was never legally viable.)
When WW asked Hoyle in a spring interview if she had met with Cazares at any point about the grant, Hoyle said: “I don’t recall. I might have. I’m not saying I did or didn’t.”
Records obtained by WW, however, show that Hoyle met with Cazares and the director of the apprenticeship and training division for BOLI, Lisa Ransom, at Portland City Grill on March 24, 2021. The topic of the meeting, according to a calendar invite: “Rosa Cazara, La Mota re: Cannabis Apprenticeship.”
A spokeswoman for Hoyle, Marissa Sandgren, says Hoyle believes Cazares paid for her meal that night, but that it was under $50. “If we knew then what we know now,” Sandgren says, “that dinner wouldn’t have happened.”
On June 11, 2021, Mitchell contributed $20,000 to Hoyle’s political action committee. The contribution, according to Sandgren, was made in cash—the typical way the cannabis couple made such contributions. It was the second-largest contribution Hoyle received that year from an individual. (The largest came from a New York-based venture capitalist named Bradley Tusk.)
In November 2021, Ransom sent an email updating Hoyle on “two committees in development,” including “La Mota.” (It’s unclear whether this is the same grant program ENDVR applied for in 2022, but it’s unlikely—after all, the Oregon Legislature hadn’t yet passed the bill that would provide the funding to BOLI for those grants.)
“LaMota has proven challenging in terms of communication and follow through. PA-Aviles reports that any meeting with them requires multiple requests in writing and via phone conversations. The last actual meeting was June 25, which only the LaMota Communications Manager attended. The LaMota HR person did not show up as planned,” Ransom wrote. “LaMota stated they needed to convene internally and to also speak with the Oregon Cannibas board. Staff offered to work through the toolkit with them item by item. They never followed up. ATD staff has reached out again to offer assistance and to inquire if they want to move Forward.”
It was not until the following spring, after Hoyle announced she would run for Congress, that Mitchell and Cazares would contribute to her campaign again. This time, the two collectively gave $5,800 to Hoyle’s congressional campaign. They did so on April 30—just two days before the application window opened for the BOLI grant program that ENDVR would apply for.
Hoyle told WW this spring that Mitchell and Cazares’ political giving had nothing to do with her support for the ENDVR grant.
“Are you asking if they bought their access into this apprenticeship program for $6,000?” Hoyle said at the time. “No.”
On July 27, the training council under BOLI that approved apprenticeship grants convened to hear proposals that had made it through initial vetting stages. ENDVR was one of them. That was the meeting where council members expressed reservations about ENDVR’s proposal, and Hoyle postponed the discussion.
Throughout that meeting, records obtained by WW show, Hoyle—from a personal phone, not her state-issued phone—texted Ransom about the ENDVR proposal.
When ENDVR president Laura Vega explained that the grant would train only four apprentices, Hoyle texted Ransom: “Is it really just 4 apprentices?”
Ransom responded that it was. (Vega explained, at this point, that because it was a new apprenticeship program, much of the money would go toward building the program so that it could train more apprentices in the future.)
Hoyle texted back to Ransom: “There needs to be an explanation of how this will be more than 4.” Three minutes later, she said in another text: “I’m going to clarify, people didn’t hear it in the way she said it.” Hoyle did, in fact, speak up at the meeting and reiterate that the program was a novel one that would require high startup costs.
Ransom texted Hoyle shortly thereafter: “Reminder the funding is intended to expand Apprenticeship and showing demonstrated value.”
Hoyle responded: “I understand.” In immediate subsequent texts, Hoyle wrote: “You don’t need to convince me” and “It’s the board.”
Hoyle then instructed ENDVR to take another month to answer the council’s questions and return with a fuller proposal. After that, she said, the council would take a vote.
Ransom then texted Hoyle: “There’s no meeting a month from now.”
Hoyle responded: “Well we will need to schedule one.”
BOLI, now under new Labor Commissioner Christina Stephenson, terminated the grant this spring after WW’s March 29 report revealing La Mota’s tax delinquencies and fraught relationships with vendors.