Walz takes responsibility for failed vetting of cannabis director

A closeup of Gov. Walz speaking at a podium
Gov. Tim Walz took responsibility for a flawed vetting process of the choice he made to hire Erin DuPree as the first director of the state’s new Office of Cannabis Management, but he didn’t explain how the mistakes happened. 
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: Sept. 26, 8:04 a.m. | Posted: Sept. 25, 12:45 p.m.

The search is on — again — for a person to be the lead marijuana regulator in Minnesota after Gov. Tim Walz’s first pick for the job resigned late Friday over problems uncovered with businesses she ran. 

On Saturday, Walz took responsibility for a flawed vetting process of the choice he made to hire Erin DuPree as the first director of the state’s new Office of Cannabis Management, but he didn’t explain how the mistakes happened or how he intends to avoid similar errors in the future. 

“Not the finest hour,” is how Walz described the series of events at a MinnPost event Saturday. “Look, one of the responsibilities — and I take it and the buck stops with me — is the appointments of literally thousands of people, whether it's to positions of judges, or senior Cabinet positions, or to boards, many of you serve on some of those. And in this case, the process did not work.”

When pressed by MinnPost reporter Peter Callaghan about how vetting failed to find problems with DuPree’s background, Walz didn’t offer a direct answer.

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“I was under the impression that the system up until this point — 2,699 times — had worked right,” the governor said. “It didn’t this time. So I'm going to go back and ask again, how do these things fall through the cracks? How do we get this right?”

DuPree was a true outsider — a person without government experience who wasn’t intimately involved in the effort to legalize recreational marijuana. When she was appointed last Thursday, DuPree and the governor’s office touted her business acumen as the founder of several startups, including a CBD shop in Apple Valley.

portrait of a woman
Erin DuPree is the first leader of Minnesota’s Office of Cannabis Management.
Courtesy photo

On Friday, DuPree released a statement saying she didn’t knowingly violate any laws regarding potency of hemp-derived products at her stores and that she stepped aside to avoid becoming a distraction. 

Despite exchanging text messages over the weekend, DuPree wasn’t available for an interview with MPR News.

On Facebook, she expressed dismay over the scrutiny, writing that she was “criticized for being human” and “wasn’t the hero in everyone’s story.”

In an interview Monday with WCCO Radio, DuPree said she is working with an attorney and plans to say more about her situation in the days ahead. She said she was advised by state officials against pushing back against allegations of improper hemp product sales and financial problems related to prior businesses.

“I just don't think that they were prepared for the scrutiny that this position was going to have. And I think that ultimately that was the entire problem last week,” DuPree said. “I was ready. I knew there was going to be scrutiny, but I don't think they did. I was ready for the fight. I knew what was coming. I was not the top pick for a lot of people.”

The Office of Cannabis Management has the responsibility of regulating and enforcing cannabis and hemp product potency going forward, so having a top regulator who might have broken the rules in the past would have been a problem. The office will go through rulemaking and ultimately issue licenses to people who want to grow, transport or sell cannabis products. And it’ll be the one overseeing testing to make sure adults 21 and over can trust potency and quality of the legal items they’re buying.

As for DuPree’s financial issues, MPR News spoke to people who interacted with her as a business leader and said she wasn’t trustworthy, didn’t follow through on promises and basically ignored court orders to pay them after they sued.

DuPree was one of 150 applicants for the cannabis management director job and somehow rose to the top of the list. The law required a background check and a Walz spokesperson said one was done. 

Walz said he still wants to find an executive director with experience or at least expertise in the industry as well as managerial qualities. In the interim, Charlene Briner will remain in the role. She’s been getting the agency off the ground pending an appointment of a permanent leader.

In an interview, Briner echoed the governor’s comments about doubling back to find out what went wrong in the hiring process.

“We're not trying to dodge. We're not trying to blame here. We want to be accountable,” Briner said. “We want to figure out what happened so it doesn't happen again.”

Briner added that the process had been extensive.

“There were multiple rounds of interviews with multiple people, multiple interview panelists in each round,” she said. “And that at the end of the final, or the end of the second round of interviews, candidates were told that they would then be subjected to an extensive background check, professional references and background study before sitting with the governor, if they were chosen to be a finalist.”

The new director will have to move fast to build up a staff of around 150.

Briner said the process of hiring nine staffers is currently underway, and there are hundreds of applicants for the jobs. The office’s timelines will not be altered by DuPree’s withdrawal, Briner said, and rulemaking for the new legal cannabis system will begin in October.