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Former Official Calls Hoboken Weed License Process Shady

Former Health and Human Services Director Pantaleo “Leo” Pellegrini alleged the Hoboken weed dispensary license process was shady in a lawsuit.

Pellegrini said applicants favored by Hoboken Mayor and congressional candidate Ravi Bhalla were given special treatment in his lawsuit filed in Hudson County Superior Court.

Hoboken would not be the only New Jersey town confirmed to be playing shady political games with cannabis license applicants.

Former Hoboken Official’s Strange Departure

Pellegrini began serving the city of Hoboken under former Mayor Dawn Zimmer in 2009. The lawsuit alleges he was forced to resign in May 2023. His departure seemed strange at the time. Shortly afterward, the Hoboken Council approved hiring the noted lawyer Matt Boxer to investigate his departure.

Zimmer publicly thanked Pellegrini for his years of service after he resigned. However, this seemed to have enraged Bhalla.

“The complaint, littered with false claims, is clearly written by a disgruntled former employee who resigned after being notified he was going to be terminated based upon an investigation, conducted by former State comptroller Matt Boxer. Which found reasonable cause to believe the director engaged in unlawful and corrupt conduct in the course of his city employment. In fact, this matter was referred to and is being investigated by the FBI,” Hoboken city spokesperson Marilyn Baer said in an email.

“We anticipate that law enforcement will be taking the appropriate action in the near future,” she added.

So, after being hired, Boxer wrote a memo to the Hoboken Assistant Corporation Counsel that Pellegrini himself is corrupt. He wrote, “There is reasonable cause to believe that the Director engaged in unlawful, corrupt conduct in the course of his City employment.”

The memo does not say what Pellegrini did. But someone like Boxer would not likely say such a thing lightly.

“It would be appropriate for the City to refer this matter to law enforcement to take any steps they deem warranted,” Boxer added.

“There is no investigation. It’s a wild accusation,” Pellegrini’s attorney Giovanni Di Pierro said. “I would assume my client would obviously tell me if there’s under investigation.”

If there were an investigation, it would make sense if Di Pierro knew about it.

Nature’s Touch Distance Issues

The lawsuit alleges that the corporate Multi-State Operator (MSO) Story Dispensary went through a dirty process to get approved. Pellegrini said Bhalla pressured him to vote against their potential competition, Nature’s Touch dispensary.

Nature’s Touch was a local woman-owned dispensary applicant. It won a medical cannabis license from the NJ Cannabis Regulatory Commission (NJCRC) in the 2019-2021 round. However, the small town where they were going to be based turned against them. So, they tried to move to Hoboken.

To do so, they had to get Hoboken Cannabis Review Board approval first. Its members were Hoboken Business Administrator Jason Freeman, then-Council President Mike Russo, and Pellegrini.

They passed the Cannabis Review Board’s initial hearing.

“Behind the scenes … that was undone,” Di Pierro declared.

The Hoboken weed license lawsuit says Pellegrini was told, “Mayor Bhalla said he received a telephone call from Mayor (Steve) Fulop of Jersey City and that Mayor Fulop was extremely upset and very angry that the Cannabis Board awarded to Nature’s Touch said location.”

“Bhalla reiterated that he was going to quash the award to Nature’s Touch and explained that in exchange, Mayor Fulop promised he would give Mayor Bhalla’s law firm contract work,” the lawsuit explains.

Nature’s Touch ultimately did not get the city council resolution necessary to open.

Hoboken Cannabis Board attorney Ron Mondello refused to comment on the story.

Bhalla’s law firm later won a contract with Jersey City for hundreds of thousands of dollars of work. But Bhalla said it was done ethically.

Shady Story Dispensary Problems in Hoboken

Fulop was allegedly angry that Nature’s Touch was too close to Story dispensary. Story is renting a building owned by his wife Jaclyn’s business.

“I never called Ravi. And importantly, my family has no economic interest in any dispensary. It’s a retained space. It’s no different than renting it to McDonald’s. The lease is not contingent on approvals, and the zone is by right,” Fulop told Politico NJ.

Dispensary distance is a very common problem in Jersey City that has resulted in at least two ongoing lawsuits.

The MSO Story dispensary did not seek to generate public support before getting approval from the city. So, the community testified against them due to anti-cannabis and congestion concerns. Crowds testified angrily for hours against them.

Pellegrini ultimately voted to approve Story dispensary during a Hoboken Cannabis Review Board meeting. He later claimed that Bhalla pressured him to do so.

Despite massive public opposition Story Dispensary was approved to open by the Hoboken Planning Board and Council.

In addition to the Story Dispensary allegations, the lawsuit says powerful political consultants close to Bhalla pressured Pellegrini to approve the small MSO Terrapin Care Station, which they did. They changed their name to simply “The Station Dispensary” and opened earlier this year in winter 2024. They were to use lawsuits to defend their prime downtown turf by the Hoboken train station.

The anti-cannabis public attitude in the hard-drinking town generated from the MSO Story Dispensary controversy caused the council to amend their initial cannabis law. Initially, they allowed consumption lounges and many dispensaries. Now, they don’t like lounges and have longer distance requirements.

Hoboken Weed Dispensary Lawsuit Issues

Di Pierro said Pellegrini did a stellar job for Hoboken. No one ever complained about him before he spoke out against shadiness.

“He paid a heavy price,” Di Pierro added.

He said Pellegrini is looking for a redress of grievances that would include financial payment after his wrongful termination.

Di Pierro wouldn’t speculate if they would want to settle or get to trial. He noted a trial date is dependent on pleading and discovery stages that have to take place first.

“Hopefully, things will emerge that are evidence. We’ll see where it goes,” Di Pierro said.

According to Hudson County View, four Hoboken council people who hate Bhalla held a press conference calling for the FBI and the New Jersey Attorney General to investigate him.

They largely adopted the anti-cannabis sentiment generated in the wake of the Story Dispensary controversy.

Shadiness and Congressional Primary Politics

Bhalla is trying to take the seat of incumbent Congressman Rob Menendez Jr., son of Senator Bob Menendez, who is being tried for corruption, in the competitive primary next Tuesday, June 4th.

Both Rob Jr. and Bhalla have expressed pro-cannabis legalization positions in the past.

The council people who called for an investigation into Bhalla endorsed Rob Jr. in the primary.

The scandal has been a recurring subject in the congressional debates between the two. Bhalla is trying to say Bob Sr.’s shadiness reflects poorly on Rob Jr. But Rob Jr. is using the lawsuit as an example of Bhalla’s shadiness.

“Pellegrini didn’t file a lawsuit with politics in mind,” Di Pierro said. “This is a lawsuit about someone who was forced out.”

Pellegrini ran for city council last year in Hoboken but did poorly.

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