Tag Archives: businesses

Pot and profit: Business owners replace idealists in marijuana movement

Business owners are replacing idealists in the pot-legalization movement as the nascent marijuana industry creates a broad base of new donors, many of them entrepreneurs willing to spend to change drug policy.

Unlike in the past, these supporters are not limited to a few wealthy people seeking change for personal reasons. They constitute a bigger coalition of business interests. And their support provides a significant financial advantage for pro-legalization campaigns.

“It’s mainly a social-justice movement. But undoubtedly there are business interests at work, which is new in this movement,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, a one-time pot-shop owner and now head of a Denver marijuana consulting firm.

The donors offer a wider foundation of support for the marijuana-related measures on the ballot next month in nine states. The campaigns are still largely funded by national advocacy organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project and the New Approach PAC. But those groups are less reliant on billionaire activists.

On the other side, legalization opponents are attracting new support from businesses as diverse as trucking, pharmaceuticals and even gambling.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to pass ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., followed in 2014. The result is a bigger pool of existing businesses that see expansion potential in more states authorizing use of the drug.

Take Darren Roberts of Boca Raton, Florida, co-founder of High There!, a social network for fans of pot. He donated $500 this year to a campaign to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in Florida. Roberts is also encouraging his customers to donate to legalization campaigns in their own states.

“I would say it’s a combination of both the philanthropic social interest and the potential financial interest,” Roberts said.

All five states considering recreational marijuana _ Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada _ have seen more money flowing to groups that favor legalization than to those fighting it. The same is true in the four states considering starting or reinstating medical marijuana _ Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota.

The donors who contribute to anti-legalization efforts have changed, too.

Some deep-pocket donors who drove opposition campaigns in years past are opening their pocketbooks again.

Casino owner Sheldon Adelson of Nevada, for example, gave some $5 million in 2014 to oppose a medical-pot measure in Florida. This year, as his home state considers recreational pot and Florida takes a second look at medical marijuana, Adelson has spent $2 million on opposition in Nevada and $1 million to oppose legalization in Massachusetts.

Other casinos are donating to Nevada opposition efforts, too, including MGM Resorts International and Atlantis Casino & Resort. Nevada gambling regulators have warned that marijuana violates federal law.

Some new opponents have also emerged, moving beyond the typical anti-pot base that includes law enforcement groups, alcohol companies and drug-treatment interests.

A pharmaceutical company that is working on a synthetic version of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, Insys Therapeutics Inc., has given at least $500,000 to oppose full marijuana legalization in its home state of Arizona.

The company did not return a message for comment on the donation. Company officials said in a statement last month that Insys opposes the Arizona ballot measure because marijuana’s safety has not been demonstrated through the federal regulatory process.

Other new names popping up in opposition disclosures include U-Haul, which gave $25,000 to oppose legalization in Arizona, and Julie Schauer, a Pennsylvania retiree who gave more than $1 million to a group opposing legalization. Neither returned messages seeking comment on their donations.

Smaller donors to opposition campaigns say they are hopelessly outgunned by the young pot industry, but are giving out of a sense of duty.

“Everyone’s talking about it like it’s a done deal, but I can’t sit by when I’ve seen firsthand the destruction that marijuana does to people,” said Howard Samuels, a drug-treatment therapist in Los Angeles who donated some $20,000 to oppose recreational legalization in California.

Samuels and other marijuana opponents insist that the pot industry cynically hopes to get more people addicted to the drug to line its own pockets, comparing pot providers to tobacco companies.

But marijuana-industry donors insist that they are simply carrying on a tradition started by the tie-dye wearing drug activists who pushed legalization long before there was any business model attached to it. They insist they would contribute financially even without any money-making potential.

“When a movement becomes an industry, of course the advocacy picture gets shuffled,” said Bob Hoban, a Denver attorney specializing in marijuana law and a $1,000 donor to the Marijuana Policy Project. “It shifts away from activists to more traditional business interests, because the skill sets don’t exactly transfer.”

Study: 73 percent of Fortune 500 companies playing offshore shell game

More than 73 percent of Fortune 500 companies maintained subsidiaries in offshore tax havens in 2015, according to “Offshore Shell Games.”

The new study was released this week by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Collectively, multinationals reported booking $2.5 trillion offshore, with just 30 companies accounting for 66 percent of this total.

By indefinitely stashing profits in offshore tax havens, corporations are avoiding up to $717.8 billion in U.S. taxes.

“Corporate tax dodging may be legal, but it’s certainly not good for everyday taxpayers and responsible small businesses,” Michelle Surka, advocate with U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said in a news release. “It disadvantages small businesses that don’t have scores of tax lawyers, creates an economic environment that favors accounting tricks over innovation and real productivity, and forces the rest of us to foot the bill. We’re beginning to see a growing international interest in cracking down on corporate tax dodging, and with $717.8 billion on the line, it’s time for the United States to start doing the same.”

“Every year, corporations collectively report that they have tens of billion more in cash stashed offshore than they did the year before, “ added Matthew Gardner of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. “The hard fact is that the U.S. tax code incentivizes tax haven abuse by allowing companies to indefinitely defer taxes on offshore profits until they are ‘repatriated.’ The only way to end this kind of tax avoidance is by closing the loopholes in the tax code that enable it.”

Key findings of the report:

• 367 Fortune 500 companies collectively maintain 10,366 tax haven subsidiaries. The 30 companies with the most money booked offshore for tax purposes collectively operate 2,509 tax haven subsidiaries.
• 58 percent of companies with any tax haven subsidiaries registered at least one in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands, countries with no corporate tax. The profits that American multinationals collectively claim to earn in these island nations totals 1,884 percent and 1,313 percent, respectively of each country’s entire yearly economic output, an impossible feat.
• The 30 companies with the most money booked offshore for tax purposes collectively hold nearly $1.65 trillion overseas. That is 66 percent of the nearly $2.5 trillion that Fortune 500 companies together report holding offshore.
• Only 58 Fortune 500 companies disclose what they would expect to pay in U.S. taxes if these profits were not officially booked offshore.In total, these 58 companies would owe $212 billion in additional federal taxes, equal to the entire state budgets of California, Virginia and Indiana combined. The average tax rate the 58 companies currently pay to other countries on this income is a mere 6.2 percent, implying that most of it is booked to tax havens.

The study highlights the following companies:

Apple: Apple has booked $214.9 billion offshore — more than any other company. It would owe $65.4 billion in U.S. taxes if these profits were not officially held offshore for tax purposes. A recent ruling by the European Commission found that Apple used a tax haven structure in Ireland to pay a rate of just 0.005 percent on its European profits in 2014, and has required that the company pay $14.5 billion in back taxes to Ireland, where the company was paying significantly less than even the tax haven’s standard low tax rate. A U.S. Senate investigation in 2013 uncovered Apple’s two Irish subsidiaries that were tax residents of neither the United States, where they are managed and controlled, nor Ireland, where they are incorporated.
Nike: The sneaker giant officially holds $10.7 billion offshore for tax purposes on which it would owe $3.6 billion in U.S. taxes. This implies Nike pays a mere 1.4 percent tax rate to foreign governments on those offshore profits, indicating that nearly all of the money is officially held by subsidiaries in tax havens. The shoe company, which operates 931 retail stores throughout the world, does not operate one in Bermuda.
Goldman Sachs: Goldman Sachs reports having987 subsidiaries in offshore tax havens, 537 of which are in Bermuda despite not operating a single legitimate office in that country, according to its own website. The bank officially holds $28.6 billion offshore.
The report concludes that to end tax haven abuse, Congress should end incentives for companies to shift profits offshore, close the most egregious offshore loopholes, strengthen tax enforcement and increase transparency.

Petition puts down profiting off child players of Pokemon Go

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood wants Niantic, Inc., producers of Pokemon GO, to protect children who play the popular new game from commercial exploitation.

CCFC, in a petition online, urged Niantic to not lure children under 13 to visit sponsored “PokeStops” and “Pokemon Gyms,” or deliver to them any targeted advertisements based on their location.

Pokemon GO is a location-based augmented reality game that requires players to visit specific real world places — called “PokeStops” and “Pokemon Gyms” — in order to capture, battle and train virtual creatures.

Niantic says Pokemon GO encourages players to “Get Up, Get Out, and Explore.”

But Niantic is selecting some PokeStops and Gyms based on paid sponsorships, using the game’s appeal to entice customers to brick and mortar establishments, and McDonald’s is one of the first sponsors.

In Japan, every McDonald’s is a Pokemon GO hot spot.

Once children playing the game arrive at the restaurant, they’re enticed to buy Happy Meals with Pokemon GO toys, the petitioners protested.

“No child should be lured to McDonald’s or any other sponsor’s establishment while playing Pokemon GO,” Josh Golin, executive director of CCFC, said in a news release. “If Niantic wants to cash in on the game’s enormous popularity by herding players to its sponsors’ locations, it should exclude children from this type of marketing.”

Angela J. Campbell, a Georgetown law professor and CCFC board member, stated in the release, “It is the height of hypocrisy for Niantic to tout Pokemon GO as a means to get children outside, then use the game to sell Happy Meals.”

Pokemon GO collects a wealth of data about its players, including their geolocation, as they play the game.

So CCFC also urged Niantic to refrain from delivering personalized ads to children based on the data.

Because all players are required to provide their birthdate at sign-up, Niantic can identify and protect players under 13, the advocacy group said.

In addition to advertising concerns, advocates and experts have noted that Pokemon GO presents a host of threats to users’ safety and privacy, particularly for younger players.

“This is a watershed moment not only for Pokemon GO, but for the burgeoning augmented reality industry,” Golin said. “Will Niantic take the precautions necessary to make Pokemon GO a safe environment for children? Or will AR just be another gimmick to make kids ‘Get up, get out, and go to McDonald’s?”

Partnership brings cats into businesses to up adoption

An Elkins, West Virginia, animal shelter is collaborating with businesses in the region to provide temporary homes for resident cats, with hopes of increasing adoption rates in the county.

Three local businesses have agreed to foster shelter cats and the Randolph County Humane Society’s program organizer Carrie Shupp said five additional local businesses have expressed interest in the program.

Shupp said the program took root in December, when Fancy Paws owner Ann Kreps-Weber offered to groom RCHS cats in preparation for Christmas, so store employees could obtain certification as cat groomers to meet a growing demand.

“(Kreps-Weber) mentioned they were considering a shop cat and the idea transformed into Fancy Paws becoming the first RCHS off-site partner location,” Shupp said. “Our first adoption was Dec. 23, only a week after initiating the project.”

Fifteen adoptions from Fancy Paws have followed. Shupp attributes that success to an increased visibility of the cats and a successful adoption event hosted by the shop. As of March 11, there were two cats — Bijou and Meatball — featured in the store’s front window for passersby to see, although the cats are free to roam behind the counter after business hours.

Kreps-Weber said the arrangement is mutually beneficial because the cats bring business in, but they also free up space at the shelter.

“It’s just a really good feeling to have people who work downtown stop by on their lunch breaks to come in and talk to the kittens, play with the cats or just stand outside the window,” she said. “It’s just been really great.”

Shabby Avenue was the next to offer space for fostering services. Shupp said Cowboy, a friendly orange tabby with special needs, roams the Elkins business and has been delighting shop patrons ever since.

“Cowboy has been so popular with the public that people have stopped by just to meet him,” Shupp said.

Store owner Jamie Rush said when she heard about the program and learned that RCHS hoped to expand it, she “thought it was a wonderful idea,” and decided to participate.

“Being an animal lover myself, I expressed to (Shupp) that I would be willing to help with getting their program started and would consider fostering a cat at Shabby Avenue,” she said.

At first Rush wasn’t sure if Cowboy, who had been returned to the shelter twice because of a feline illness condition and was in need of immediate temporary placement, was a good fit with her business. Rush added she initially wondered what she had gotten herself into, but the cat has proven to be a welcome guest at the shop.

“I can honestly say that I am very glad that I did agree (to foster Cowboy),” she said. “He has been a well-behaved and gracious guest during his stay at the shop and my customers love him.”

Rush said Cowboy is very friendly and greets every customer as they enter. She added that he is “quite a character.”

“He has a fondness for wearing bow ties, which has gained him his own following on social media,” she said. “Customers tell me that they watch for his photos and enjoy reading Facebook posts about the silly things that he does or seeing him posing for the camera in one of his many bow ties.”

Rush said customers often express their gratitude that she is willing to participate in the program.

“I feel that by fostering him at my business I am providing him a better chance at finding a forever home because potential adopters get to see what a great personality he has without the distraction of dozens of other animals,” she said. “It also helps free up space at the shelter for other animals in need.”

Rush added she would “absolutely encourage” other local businesses to consider partnering with RCHS.

Shupp said the most recent partnership — with Triangle Heating and Cooling — was also initiated by the business owner. Emerald, a 16-month-old female with special needs because of an injured left foot, was adopted just days after being introduced at the business.

Business owner Kristie Stalnaker said she wanted to participate in the program because “cats don’t always get a fair chance when they’re at the shelter.”

“We wanted to bring her in, just so more people could see her,” she said. “I think it’s a great program they’ve got going on and I’m happy to help.”

Stalnaker said she already misses having Emerald around the office.

“Emerald is just a sweet little girl,” she said. “I can’t say enough about how sweet of a kitty she is.”

Stalnaker said she’s looking forward to meeting a new work companion as she continues to foster cats for the RCHS.

“I’m really soft-hearted for animals and I think every pet deserves a good home,” she said. “Often they don’t get that when they’re in the shelter because a lot of people don’t like to go there because ‘it’s sad’ and can make people uncomfortable.”

Each of the participating shop owners have opted to supply food for their foster cats, although this is not a requirement. Shupp said the RCHS is committed to supplying basic needs for foster pets.

“We are so very thankful for (all our partnering businesses) and humbled by their interest in helping us help homeless animals,” Shupp said. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You are so appreciated.”

The program benefits the shelter animals “in so many ways,” Shupp said. She added the partnerships reduce the risk for illnesses, increase socialization and allow cats the chance, in some cases, to roam free and “just be cats.”

“If we had a dime for every time someone says they cannot come to the shelter because it is ‘too sad,’ we would be very rich. This arrangement changes that,” she said. “The cats are not at the shelter, they are there in the store you walk by on your way to lunch. They are at the business you frequent. Seeing them makes all the difference.”

Shop owners also benefit from having a cat onsite, Shupp said.

“Having a cat creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere,” she said. “Let’s face it, animal lovers stick together. Given a choice, Elkins residents who are animal lovers will give business to a shop that demonstrates their love for animals, too.”

Shupp added shops also benefit from the partnership because the RCHS promotes participating businesses. She noted these arrangements are good for the community because they foster awareness and increase public exposure to adoptable pets.

“This allows us, at RCHS, to make room for other homeless animals and prepare them to be adopted. As long as we are at capacity, we can’t take in others,” she said.

Freeing up shelter space allows shelter officials to more actively pursue the Trap Neuter Release program, which Shupp said, in the long run, will reduce the number of free-roaming community cats.

“I am sure the public is familiar with ‘it takes a village.’ It is the same in animal welfare,” she said. “Instead of focusing on homeless animals as an issue, we should see this as a community challenge. That challenge is to reduce the number of homeless, unwanted animals and see higher adoptions, more TNR support and a responsive community to be a component of change.”

Shupp said the program is just one step in the right direction for Elkins to be a “humane city.”

“A humane city is one in which the leadership and residents make a conscious decision to provide resources and strategies that protect the health and safety of all animals. It reflects respect for — and value of — all life,” she said. “As part of that campaign, we hope that businesses will choose to become humane businesses, whose practices and policies reflect those values.”

FBI arrests activists accused of releasing minks from Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota farms

Two animal-rights activists have been charged with terrorizing the fur industry during cross-country road trips in which they released about 5,740 mink from farms, and vandalized the homes and businesses of industry members, the FBI said.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Joseph Brian Buddenberg, 31, and Nicole Juanita Kissane, 28, both of Oakland, California, and federal prosecutors charged them with conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.

Two animal-rights activists have been charged with terrorizing the fur industry during cross-country road trips in which they released about 5,740 mink from farms, and vandalized the homes and businesses of industry members, the FBI said.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Joseph Brian Buddenberg, 31, and Nicole Juanita Kissane, 28, both of Oakland, California, and federal prosecutors charged them with conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.

A federal grand jury indictment unsealed Friday said the two caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages during 40,000 miles of cross-country trips over the summer and into the fall of 2013.

“Whatever your feelings about the fur industry, there are legal ways to make your opinions known,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said in a statement. “The conduct alleged here, sneaking around at night, stealing property and vandalizing homes and businesses with acid, glue, and chemicals, is a form of domestic terrorism and can’t be permitted to continue.”

Buddenberg and Kissane were under house arrest with electronic monitoring until a scheduled court date this week. Efforts to reach them Saturday were unsuccessful. It was not clear whether either has hired an attorney.

If convicted, they each face a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The two allegedly sneaked onto farms in Idaho, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota and freed mink and destroyed breeding records. In one case, they released a bobcat from a farm in Montana, according to the FBI.

They allegedly slashed vehicles’ tires, glued businesses’ locks or smashed windows, vandalizing property in San Diego, Spring Valley and La Mesa, California. They are also charged with vandalizing and attempting to flood the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, home of an employee of the North American Fur Auctions.

The indictment states that they covered their tracks by avoiding phones or logging into known online accounts and email. Instead, they used public computers and encrypted email, and cash for purchases while traveling. They would withdraw hundreds of dollars while home in the San Francisco Bay Area before another trip, prosecutors said.

The FBI states that they drafted communiques and posted them online to publicize their actions on websites associated with “animal rights extremists.”

Argentina capital is bookstore capital of the world

All across Argentina’s capital, lodged between the steakhouses, ice cream shops and pizzerias, is an abundance of something that is becoming scarce in many nations: bookstores.

From hole-in-the-wall joints with used copies of works by Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Cervantes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to elegant buildings with the latest children’s books in several languages, Buenos Aires is filled with locales that pay homage to print.

The city of Buenos Aires has more bookstores per capita than any other major city in the world, according to a recent study by the World Cities Cultural Forum, an organization that works to promote culture. With a population of 2.8 million people within the city limits, there are 25 bookstores for every 100,000 people, putting Buenos Aires far above other world cities like London, Paris, Madrid, Moscow and New York. The closest is Hong Kong, which has 22 bookstores per 100,000 people.

“Books represent us like the tango,” said Juan Pablo Marciani, manager of El Ateneo Gran Splendid, an immense bookstore in the affluent Recoleta neighborhood where 7,000 people visit each week. “We have a culture very rooted in print.”

Behind the high number of bookstores, 734 by last count, is a combination of culture and economics.

Culture boomed along with the economy in the early part of the 20th century, and even if the economic path grew rocky, ordinary Argentines embraced and stuck to the habit of reading. To this day, many across the region call the Argentine capital the “Paris of Latin America” thanks to its architecture, wide streets and general interest in the arts, music and literature.

During the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, many top writers and editors fled to Argentina, further cementing the country as a literary capital and powerhouse for printing.

In 2014, there were 28,010 titles in circulation and 129 million books were printed in the country, according to the Argentine Book Chamber, making it one of the most prolific book printers in Latin America.

Many stores carry rare books that are hundreds of years old. At Libreria Alberto Casares, bookworms can gaze at a collection that includes a French translation of Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega from 1650 and Gregorian chants on papyrus dating back to 1722.

In buses and subways, in parks and cafes and even in malls, it’s common to see people flipping pages of whodunits, histories and poetry, or most recently, new books about the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, a case that has rocked the country since he was found shot dead in his bathroom Jan. 18.

“I was born with paper books and I’ll die with paper books,” said Aida Cardozo, 65, who was recently reading “Las Huellas del Rencor,” or “Traces of Resentment,” philosopher Santiago Kovadloff’s work on changes in Argentine society over the last 13 years.

“Computers are for responding to emails and using Facebook, but not to read a novel,” she said.

Books also receive help when it comes to staving off the digital deluge. There are no sales taxes on books, notable in a country where most products get 21 percent slapped on top of the sticker price. And heavy import taxes on books, and electronics such as e-readers, help keep the local printing industry strong. While Argentines are increasingly glued to their mobile devices, customers who want to use foreign retailers like Amazon have to pay a 35 percent surcharge on their peso-denominated credit cards.

The use of e-readers like the Kindle is still relatively low. Less than 10 percent of the 1.2 million people who attended the city’s annual book fair last year said they used electronic devices to read books, according to a fair survey.

Ignacio Iraola, the Southern Cone editorial director for publishing house Grupo Planeta, said the economic factors make printed books an attractive business for bookstores and make books a popular gift in tight economic times.

“A book costs 200 pesos ($23) compared to 400 pesos $46 for a shirt,” said Iraola. “And the perceived value of a book is much higher.”

Illinois issues medical marijuana licenses

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner awarded licenses this week to dozens of medical marijuana businesses across the state after conducting an internal review that found flaws in the never-completed license award process under former Gov. Pat Quinn.

Letters to 18 winning cultivation centers and 52 retail shops were sent out, Rauner spokesman Lance Trover told The Associated Press. In eight districts, Rauner delayed the licenses for further review, leaving those jurisdictions awaiting word on which companies will be able to join what could be a $36 million industry in 2016.

“I believe the right companies were rewarded,” said Tim McGraw, CEO of ACE Revolution Cannabis, which won licenses to build marijuana-growing facilities in the Illinois cities of Delavan and Barry. “We’re excited to get to work to bring safe medicine to the patients of Illinois.”

Letters sent to the cultivation center winners from the Department of Agriculture inform them of a number of conditions. Businesses will need to pay a license fee, for example, and they’ll be subject to ongoing oversight during the startup process.

The license awards follow many weeks of uncertainty after the Quinn administration failed to meet its own deadline of issuing the permits by the end of 2014. The Democrat announced the morning of Rauner’s inauguration that he would leave the issue for the Republican to decide. 

The Associated Press reported last week, based on documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request, that Quinn’s office was scrambling to decide whether to issue licenses on the eve of him leaving office. The Rauner administration launched its review of the process almost immediately.

Medical patients had been pushing Quinn to issue the licenses. Rauner’s action this week means that Illinois’ first legal marijuana crop could be harvested this year. It’s not immediately clear how long it will be before patients will have access to the first legal cannabis. 

State Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat who sponsored the legislation that created the pilot program, praised Rauner for issuing the licenses. He said although the Republican governor inherited a program with several problems and has indicated he is not a big fan of medical cannabis, his office managed to carefully review the process and issue licenses with only three weeks of delay. 

“Gov. Rauner deserves a lot of credit here,” Lang said. “It’s great for patients.”

Rauner’s general counsel, Jason Barclay, released a statement Monday listing problems in the Quinn process that had created “a risk of substantial and costly litigation” to the state.

Barclay said that the teams reviewing the applications imposed arbitrary cut-offs in scores “that were not expressly contemplated or provided by law that effectively eliminated certain applicants from consideration.”

He said the state agencies involved conducted a character and fitness review of the applicants only after the blind scoring process had been completed. That character and fitness review resulted in several applicants being disqualified “without clear procedures and standards for disqualification and without offering the prospective applicants an opportunity to respond to the information that was relied upon to make the disqualification decisions.”

Finally, the Rauner administration faulted Quinn for deciding “to award no more than one cultivation center license to applicants who were the high point scorers in more than one district.”

Barclay said the review was shared with Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, which also reviewed the findings. Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, wouldn’t elaborate.

One dispensary applicant still under review in two districts, Health Central LLC, had hired former Quinn chief of staff Jack Lavin to lobby for medical marijuana licenses. 

Matthew Hortenstine, an attorney representing Health Central, said he’s “confident the Rauner administration will be fair-minded about this and give an adequate and proper review.” Other companies also had politically connected lobbyists, Hortenstine said.

Lang, the sponsor, said he’s believed from the beginning that the process would result in litigation, and that a lawsuit was likely regardless of how Rauner handled it. 

Lang said he spoke with some patients after hearing the news. “They are thrilled and ready to go,” he said.

Quinn made no decisions because he “felt the process was incomplete,” Quinn spokesman George Sweeney said in an email Monday. “He refused to rush the licenses out the door and instead left the licensing decisions to the next administration, as was done with many contracting decisions at other state agencies.”

Material released last week by Rauner’s administration “was preliminary and never approved” by Quinn, Sweeney said.

West Hollywood ordinance requires gender-neutral restrooms

West Hollywood, California, this week begins requiring gender-neutral restrooms under a new ordinance.

The ordinance that takes effect on Jan. 15 requires that restrooms with only one stall in restaurants, businesses and public places cannot restrict it to a specific sex either by signage or fixtures.

Existing businesses have 60 days to make changes, but new ones must heed the requirements immediately.

The Los Angeles suburb, which has a sizeable LGBT population, passed the ordinance in June. It doesn’t apply to multiple-stall restrooms.

“Gender-specific restrooms can be unwelcoming and potentially unsafe for many people whose gender identity falls outside of traditional gender norms,” said a city statement released this week.

The city said the law also will prove beneficial to “people with disabilities or with personal attendants, people with children of a different gender, and to the many people who have waited in line for a gender-specific restroom” when stalls for the opposite sex are empty.

A similar law was passed in 2006 in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia passed a measure in 2013 that requires new or renovated city-owned buildings to include gender-neutral bathrooms.

Milwaukee restaurant groups offer menu of choices

Milwaukee’s dining scene isn’t as well-known as Chicago’s or New York’s, but Brew City is far from starving for quality culinary options. The metro area hosts a feast of high-quality, creative food and drink options that cater to big spenders and average Joes alike.

The originality of the city’s dining venues is so impressive that it’s surprising to learn how many of them are operated by the same ownership groups. Just three of those groups — Bartolotta, Mojofuco and SURG — manage more than 30 restaurants, bars and eateries among them. There’s an obvious financial benefit available to owners who can pull it off, no easy task in the current economy.

But the real accomplishment is not in having a successful portfolio of restaurants. It’s in pleasing the palates of Milwaukee — and elevating the dining scene in the process.

Bartolotta

Brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta have been building their line of restaurants for more than 20 years. But all they originally wanted was a single really great one — and Joe didn’t even realize he wanted that at first.

“(Paul) knew exactly what he wanted to do, and I didn’t,” Joe Bartolotta says, reflecting on their post-high school days. While Paul took the culinary path, graduating from MATC’s restaurant and hotel management program in 1980 and studying Italian cooking with master chefs in New York City and Italy, Joe stumbled into a DIY business and management program, working at restaurants throughout NYC and learning as he went. “There was really no school for that at the time,” he says, “so the best way to learn was to roll up your sleeves and do it.”

When the two returned to the Midwest, they had the skill sets and the drive necessary to create that one great restaurant: Ristorante Bartolotta, which opened its doors in 1993. Located near their childhood home in Wauwatosa — Joe wryly notes they visited the restaurant as kids when it was a pancake house — Ristorante Bartolotta was an unusual Italian restaurant for its time. The menu focused on Northern Italian cuisine, which uses less meat and more heavy red sauces, olive oil and herbs.

Ristorante Bartolotta was a hit, earning a four-star rating from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel immediately upon opening. But it also made Joe realize the job he’d built for himself was going to make him a “prisoner” of the restaurant.

So he started looking for ways to expand the prison bars. After an 18-month struggle with Milwaukee County, he obtained permission to transform a neglected pavilion into Lake Park Bistro in 1995, winning accolades for its authentic French bistro cuisine. Italian steakhouse Mr. B’s followed in 1999.

Joe says Mr. B’s was the tipping point: “When you have three restaurants, a lot of people approach you with opportunities.”

Those opportunities have made Bartolotta Restaurants Milwaukee’s premier fine-dining group and one of its most diverse. And it’s still growing. In 2012, Bartolotta’s opened a modernized supper club, Joey Gerard’s, in two locations (Greendale and Mequon); Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque, a carryout-focused barbecue restaurant opened in July adjacent to Joey Gerard’s in Greendale.

Bartolotta credits the balancing act to his 1,100 employees, many of whom have built careers with the company. He says he prioritizes his workers’ happiness — if they’re happy, they’ll keep diners happy.

The Bartolotta Restaurants’ latest project is the food court in the U.S. Bank building — a once-perfunctory space now known as the Downtown Kitchen. It provides dine-in or carryout options, including a kosher-style deli, Pizzeria Piccola pizza and Northpoint burgers.

“It’s like a food court,” he says, “but a really cool food court.”

Although Bartolotta admits there are days where the business feels too big to manage, they’re evened out by days when he recognizes his growth has enabled his employees to build careers in the industry. And that, in turn, has helped Milwaukee build a reputation of its own as a city with solid fine-dining options, both at Bartolotta restaurants and elsewhere.

Mojofuco

It seems like Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro should have had a top-level research and development team guiding them, the way they’ve opened restaurants. They opened Hi-Hat Lounge right when craft cocktails returned in vogue. Palomino opened in Bay View just as Gen X Milwaukeeans began to migrate there. Balzac jumped on the small-plates bandwagon long before the style became a staple.

Guess again. Johnson says they’ve just been lucky since the day he and Montemurro returned from a cross-country road trip and decided to open a neighborhood coffee shop like those they’d enjoyed while visiting different cities.

Neither Johnson nor Montemurro had managed a restaurant before opening Fuel Cafe in 1993. But back then, it wasn’t about building a big restaurant group.

“I was a punk rocker and anarchist,” Johnson says. “I was traveling a lot at the time, and I wanted some way I could keep traveling and have a job to come back to.” 

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Fuel was a hit, as were the coffee shops, bars and restaurants Johnson and Montemurro opened in the years that followed, each launched as inspiration struck.

Initially, Johnson and Montemurro participated directly in management. But after a few years, they stepped back, creating an operating structure that let them focus on big-picture issues and empowering the head staffers of each location to have a free hand in hiring and management.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to hire employees to work for a manager — they should hire their own people,” Johnson says. “That took us a while to figure out. We were figuring it out as we went.”

Perhaps it’s their hands-off management style that’s enabled Johnson and Montemurro to work well with other entrepreneurs in the city. They originally teamed up with Mike Eitel and Eric Wagner to open Hi Hat, Garage and Balzac, then part of the Diablos Rojos restaurant group along with Trocadero and Cafe Hollander. Eitel and Wagner eventually broke away amicably, taking Trocadero and Hollander to form the Lowlands Group. (Lowlands Group was unable for comment on this story.)

Johnson and Montemurro also share ownership of Comet, Honeypie and Palomino with the brother-sister duo Adam and Valerie Lucks, and Kristyn St. Denis is a co-owner at both Fink’s and the three BelAir Cantinas.

It’s a complicated but beneficial arrangement. Johnson says the Lucks’ intervention helped save Comet Cafe from a slump by focusing more heavily on food options. And the group would never have opened a second BelAir, if not for St. Denis. She exhibited a flair of intuition similar to Johnson and Montemurro’s, when she found a building in Wauwatosa for sale and recommended that the group take advantage of a neighboring restaurant boom before it was too late.

Johnson says they’ve been fortunate not to close any restaurants, attributing that both to talented employees and to chance: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but luckily none of them were really too bad to sink us.” 

Mojofuco Restaurants’ biggest project right now is opening the latest BelAir Cantina on Downer Avenue, where it will replace VIA Downer in a few weeks. After that, Johnson thinks the group will rest for a while on its bay laurels. Or will it?

“I wouldn’t mind just taking some time off, all of us, take a year to travel more and maybe work less,” Johnson says. “We say that, but then some cool opportunity comes up and we want to jump on it. We’re constantly asking, ‘What are we missing?’”

SURG

Created in 2008, SURG Restaurant Group is one of the newest groups on the scene. But the group’s partners, Omar Shaikh and Mike Polaski, have been around longer. Shaikh opened Carnevor in 2006, and Polaski opened both Umami Moto (in its original Brookfield location) and Mi-Key’s shortly before the two joined forces.

The company’s presence has exploded in the past few years, now encompassing just under a dozen locations throughout downtown Milwaukee and the suburbs.

SURG’s growth is especially impressive considering that two of its former flagship locations were hurt by Ryan Braun’s steroid scandal last year. SURG previously operated two restaurants sponsored by Braun — Graffito and 8*Twelve. After Braun’s admission that he’d used steroids, Shaikh and Polaski chose to ditch both names.

Those weren’t the first restaurants the group shuttered. The pan-Latin restaurant Charro closed in 2012 after four years of inconsistent business, and the piano bar Nuovo Centanni closed the same year.

But each loss has proven to be an opportunity for SURG to pivot and try a different concept. “We like to evolve,” Shaikh says.

So they did. Nuovo Centanni was quickly replaced by the tag team of Gouda’s Italian Deli and Bugsy’s, a classic sandwich shop by day and a 1920s-themed bar by night. Minor tweaks to the former 8*Twelve focusing on local vendors made it farm-to-table restaurant Hōm, a concept so popular the group has already opened a second location.

And earlier this year, SURG on the Water opened as a private event space in Graffito’s former location. (A new restaurant is planned to take over Charro’s space, but Shaikh says it’s too early to release details.)

Each of SURG’s restaurants has a very different format, but Shaikh says they all share certain characteristics. Attention to detail is one: The restaurants are meticulously constructed, most of them developed by the firm Flux Design. Another common factor is the sense of intimacy they offer diners. Although the two Hōms are large spaces, many of the other restaurants are deliberately small.

SURG restaurants also now share behind-the-scenes cohesion. SURG director of marketing Jaime Jacobs says the restaurants’ managers have begun working together more frequently as a way to help promote the group as a whole, which is one of Shaikh’s goals. 

Overall, Shaikh says the company plans to keep expanding and tweaking things as it goes. “We’re going to be pretty busy,” he predicts.

So make your reservations now.

Bartolotta restaurants:

Ristorante Bartolotta, Northern Italian cuisine 

Lake Park Bistro, French bistro dining 

Mr. B’s, high-end Italian steakhouse

Pizzeria Piccola, thin-crust Neapolitan pizzas

Bacchus, contemporary American cuisine 

Northpoint Custard, burger and custard stand 

Harbor House, New England-style seafood 

Rumpus Room, steampunk-influenced gastropub 

Joey Gerard’s, modern supper club 

Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque, American smokehouse barbecue 

Bartolotta Catering & Events

Mojofuco restaurants:

Fuel Cafe, Riverwest coffeeshop 

Comet Cafe, local, from-scratch diner 

Hi-Hat Lounge, craft cocktail club 

Palomino, Southern comfort food 

Garage, bar with brunch 

Balzac, wine and small plates 

Honeypie, from-scratch food and desserts 

BelAir Cantina, California-style Mexican 

Fink’s, casual cocktail bar

SURG restaurant GROUP:

Carnevor, high-caliber steakhouse 

Umami Moto, Asian fusion 

Mi-Key’s, comfort food meets cocktail lounge 

Distil, artisan cocktail bar 

Gouda’s Italian Deli, Italian sandwiches and groceries 

Bugsy’s, ’20s speakeasy bar 

Hōm, Wisconsin farm-to-table 

SURG on the Water, private event venue

Corporations are people? It’s a real legal concept

There may be more to that “we the people” notion than you thought.

These are boom times for the concept of “corporate personhood.”

Corporations are people?

Mitt Romney got mocked during the 2012 presidential campaign for the very idea.

But it turns out the principle has been lurking in U.S. law for more than a century, and the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, gave it more oomph this week when it ruled that certain businesses are entitled to exercise religious rights, just as do people.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court’s majority, said protecting the religious rights of closely held corporations, which are often small, family-run businesses, “protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.”

In its ruling, the court said closely held corporations with religious objections cannot be forced to pay for their employees’ insurance coverage for contraception, as required under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Four years earlier, the corporations-as-people idea got another big boost when the court voted 5-4 to expand the free speech rights of businesses and labor unions by striking down limits on their political spending. That unleashed a massive flood of private money into political campaigns.

The rulings have triggered renewed debate over the idea of corporations as people, which surfaces in legal cases stretching back to the 1880s.

There are wonky legal discussions about the differences between “artificial persons” (corporations) and “natural persons” (the kind with flesh and blood).

TV comics riff on the notion that fake people have more rights than real people.

There’s a petition drive to amend the Constitution to ensure that “inalienable rights belong to human beings only.”

All of this calls for a brief reality check: Corporations really aren’t people.

Everyone knows this.

Even Romney, who was criticized for being out of touch when he famously told a protester that “corporations are people, my friend.”

The point the GOP presidential candidate was trying to make was that raising taxes on corporations would affect real people because “everything corporations earn ultimately goes back to people.”

The Supreme Court was reasoning in a similar vein when it ruled that the real people who run closely held corporations should be able to exercise religious rights just as do individuals.

Alito, in his ruling, described the concept of corporate personhood as “a familiar legal fiction” that retains its usefulness.

“It is important to keep in mind that the purpose of this fiction is to provide protection for human beings,” he wrote.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, zinged Alito and the majority for “an expansive notion of corporate personhood.”

She said the “startling breadth” of the court’s ruling could clear the way for corporations to opt out of all sorts of other legal requirements if they can cite a religious objection.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2016, voiced similar concerns.

“Just think about this for a minute,” she said. “It’s the first time that our court has said that a closely held corporation has the rights of a person when it comes to religious freedom.”

Some opponents of the ruling see the expanding view of corporate personhood as a legal fiction run amok.

They say the latest court ruling could encourage corporations to try to claim greater rights in other areas as well – arguing against cruel and unusual punishment if they think a fine is too big, for example, or even seeking a corporate right to bear arms. The courts already have extended to corporations Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches but have declined to provide them Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination.

After the Supreme Court’s 2010 campaign finance ruling, attorney Burt Neuborne lamented: “At the rate the court is going, soon we will be able to be adopted by a corporation. Maybe even marry one.”

Now, Neuborne calls the latest court ruling “an immense perversion of the Constitution. Robots don’t have rights, trees don’t have rights, and neither do corporations.”

He warned that the ruling could backfire against corporations if the court goes too far in extending individual rights to businesses. Breaching the wall between corporations and their shareholders, he said, could ultimately make corporations liable for the actions of their shareholders and vice versa.

For example, if Hobby Lobby, one of the companies that sued against covering some forms of contraception, owed someone money, its creditors might try to go after the shareholders, he said.

“I suspect there’s going to be trouble in paradise down the road,” said Neuborne, who wrote a brief for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law arguing against extending religious rights to businesses.

Attorney John Bursch, a former Michigan solicitor general, said it makes sense that corporations have some of the same rights as individuals. After the court extended free-speech rights to corporations, “it’s not a big leap to say that a First Amendment protection with respect to religious liberty would also apply to a corporation,” he said.

Whether more rights should be extended, Bursch said, “is a little harder, and we’d all need to think about that.”