State director moves to avoid pot conflict because of lobbyist spouse

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
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Orlene Hawks, director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Lansing — The director of a sprawling state department said Wednesday she has agreed to take extra precautions to avoid potential conflicts of interest related to the regulation or licensing of businesses her lobbyist husband may represent.

“I pride myself on honesty and integrity,” Orlene Hawks, director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, told lawmakers who are considering her appointment by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Hawks’ husband, Michael Hawks, is a registered lobbyist and an owner of Governmental Consultant Services, Inc., one of Lansing's largest lobbyist firms.

GCSI represents companies and associations for industries overseen by the department his wife now leads, including businesses entering Michigan’s burgeoning marijuana industry that must obtain state licenses to operate.

Hawks said she does not anticipate significant ethical complications in her role but has adopted a conflict "avoidance" plan and would delegate authority to deputies should issues arise.

“When I make a decision as director, it will be based on the interest of the public and not any private interest,” she said.

The 10-page compliance plan, signed by Hawks on Tuesday and provided to The Detroit News, specifies that she will not hold any financial interest in her husband's lobbying firm and will not personally participate in contract negotiations or permit decisions for any business that employs GCSI. The agreement includes other general conflict-of-interest provisions.

Whitmer last week issued an executive order that will abolish a politically appointed medical marijuana licensing board and create a new Marijuana Regulatory Agency within the department to regulate both medical and recreational marijuana.

Because it will be a “type 1” agency, the new licensing authority will operate autonomously from the department, aside from budgeting and administrative services, Hawks said.

“Everything else, decision making and otherwise, will be with the executive director that is appointed by the governor,” she told reporters after the hearing.

Michael Hawks was named the second most effective multi-client lobbyist in the state by a 2017 MIRS/EPIC-MRA Insider Survey.

Clients at his lobbying firm include the Michigan Cannabis Development Association, Cannarbor, Medifarm and PSI Labs. Other GCSI clients include the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers and Consumers Energy, which are regulated by other type 1 department subsidiaries, the Liquor Control Commission and the Public Service Commission.

Director Hawks testified before the Senate and Advice Committee, which is considering most of Whitmer’s cabinet-level appointments. The Republican-led Legislature has not yet challenged any of the Democratic governor’s picks.

Chairman Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, asked Hawks about the potential conflict of interest, citing speculation on “the streets of Lansing” and said he was satisfied with her avoidance plan and commitment to her oath of office.

“That’s all we have to go on up here,” Lucido said. “There’s no law that permits or discriminates against her taking the position.”

Hawks described herself as a dedicated public servant who has worked in various state government roles for two decades, including as the director of Children’s Ombudsman under former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, praised Hawks and noted he worked for her 17 years ago in what was then known as the state Department of Community Health.

“Having known Orlene for as long as I’ve known her, I don’t think she would ever let anyone influence from the outside. I think she’s a confident public servant. I’m satisfied with (the conflict policy) they put into place, and I’m sure they have to do that for some reasons, but I wouldn’t be concerned either way.”

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