‘Cannabis king’ sentenced to 22 months in prison for bribing San Luis Obispo politician
Helios Dayspring had one goal: to build a cannabis empire that, in his own words, would be “too big to fail”.
But as he acquired hundreds of acres of land to grow the product and opened storefronts along California’s central coast to sell it, Dayspring’s ambition drove him to corruption.
His target was a county supervisor who, in exchange for money and other benefits, pushed measures that advanced the interests of his secret benefactor and tried to stifle those who did not.
After a lengthy hearing on Friday, U.S. District Judge André Birotte Jr. sentenced Dayspring to 22 months in prison for bribing a public official and filing a false tax return.
“What’s troubling about this case is that it goes to the heart of the governmental process,” Birotte said, noting that just blocks from the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, several members of the city hall council were accused of accepting bribes.
In Dayspring’s case, the bribes paid and favors rendered left a jaded public with the impression, Birotte said, “that, ‘Hey, that’s how it’s supposed to be, but that’s how it goes.”
Dayspring began growing small amounts of cannabis around 2007, when he got a prescription for medical marijuana, one of his attorneys, Sandra Brown Bodner, wrote in a sentencing memo.
He bought 40 acres of land in the mountains east of Santa Maria, living on his property in a trailer with his two dogs and established a reputation as a grower of ‘top-notch produce’, his lawyer wrote. .
Dayspring told the court on Friday that his life had been “particularly focused on building a too-big-to-fail business. That no matter what was taken away from me, I would always have the ability to find safety for my family, my partners, my employees and, ultimately, myself.
He pleaded guilty in July to bribery and filing a false tax return.
In 2013, Dayspring provided about 30 legal dispensaries in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, its attorney wrote. He eventually acquired six cultivation sites and opened dispensaries in several towns on the Central Coast, ventures that brought him millions of dollars.
Lawyers for Dayspring said he hired another attorney to help him navigate a shifting quagmire of licensing and regulatory hurdles as he sought to expand his business. The attorney, whom they did not name, introduced Dayspring in 2016 to Adam Hill, a San Luis Obispo County supervisor, they said.
Attorney Brown Bodner suggested the attorney told Dayspring to bribe Hill, claiming he gave his client “not only incorrect advice, but frankly illegal advice”.
Birotte seemed skeptical. “Nobody forced him to do it,” he noted. “Maybe someone turned him to the game, quote-unquote, but he took advantage of it.”
Eric Shevin, one of Dayspring’s attorneys, said the supervisor initially appealed to the contractor saying his wife had left him, leaving him with no furniture in his house and unable to pay his rent. The bribes, Shevin said, “flowed.”
Hill died of an overdose of cocaine and antidepressants in August 2020, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported. Authorities ruled it a suicide.
“He lives with, quite frankly, the death of Adam Hill,” Shevin said.
Prior to his death, the supervisor admitted he had attempted suicide after officers raided his government office in March 2020. He had not been charged with a crime at the time of his death.
In his plea deal, Dayspring admitted he first bribed Hill with three $3,000 warrants. He paid Hill an additional $9,000 in cash the following year, according to the agreement.
In November 2017, San Luis Obispo supervisors were weighing whether to exempt some growers from a moratorium on growing marijuana on unincorporated county land. The board voted unanimously to grant the exemption to growers who registered with the county before the ban took effect — a move that benefited Dayspring, according to its plea deal.
The following year, Dayspring gave Hill $5,000 in cash and cannabis products. He urged the politician to keep the exemption, but only for producers like Dayspring who had already received it, writing in a text message: “It’s really important that you extend the submission deadline and do not authorize yet other people to come in.”
After the board of supervisors voted 5-0 to extend the exemptions, Dayspring said it presented Hill with $5,000 in cash outside a restaurant in Avila Beach.
Shevin argued Friday that Hill took no action that benefited Dayspring alone, but rather a group of growers who all requested the exemption. Birotte rejected this idea.
“The reality is that Mr. Dayspring did not give the supervisor any money out of the goodness of his heart,” the judge said.
Dayspring also admitted to trying to bribe the mayor of Grover Beach, a small town south of San Luis Obispo. The mayor did not respond to the offer and no money changed hands, according to Dayspring’s plea agreement.
Dayspring’s attorneys blamed his crimes, in part, on the anonymous attorney and other professionals he hired to help “navigate an expansive, confusing, and burgeoning regulatory framework” as the state was trying to get the marijuana industry out of the black market and into a legal one.
Prosecutors acknowledged that the state’s nascent cannabis industry was “rife with corruption,” but blamed Dayspring squarely itself.
“He was trying to fix the game,” Thomas Rybarczyk, an assistant U.S. attorney, told Birotte. “Make sure no one else comes in. He was the king of cannabis.”
Rybarczyk highlighted a text sent by Dayspring to another person in the cannabis industry. “I got my hands in the political cookie jar,” he wrote, “and will make sure the market stays local.”
Dayspring took advantage in another corrupt way, the prosecutor added: From 2014 to 2018, he filed false tax returns that cost the Internal Revenue Service nearly $3.5 million. It was fair to assume he was using that capital to expand his business interests, “a benefit not enjoyed by those who play by the rules,” Rybarczyk said. He urged Birotte to send Dayspring to prison for two years and three months.
Dayspring’s attorneys had asked the judge to spare him jail time and instead sentence him to three years probation. Brown Bodner said he provided “extraordinary” cooperation in investigating public corruption in the Central Coast.
At the direction of authorities, Dayspring met with a wire-wearing official, she said, and he agreed to testify before a grand jury and at trial if requested.
But Rybarczyk said Dayspring’s cooperation was nothing out of the ordinary: it provided information on four people, none of which resulted in investigations; his secret recording of the public agent captured “nothing criminal” and went nowhere, the prosecutor said.
Lawyers for Dayspring have also urged Birotte to consider donating to charity, saying he has given out turkeys and held toy drives for the needy.
“If I win $30 million, great,” Judge said. “I distribute toys to everyone.”
Birotte ordered Dayspring to surrender by August 26 to serve his prison sentence.