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Wells Fargo terminates Ag Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried’s account because of medical pot ties

At a press conference Monday, Fried said she was "specifically targeted" by the bank.
Nikki Fried, a lawyer from South Florida, speaks to the camera in a video announcing her campaign for Agriculture Commissioner. | YouTube screen capture
Published Aug. 20, 2018
Updated Aug. 20, 2018

Wells Fargo terminated the official campaign account of Nicole "Nikki" Fried after the banking giant discovered Fried has a "political platform … advocating for expanded patient access to medical marijuana" and she had "funds received from lobbyists from the medical marijuana industry," according to correspondence with Wells Fargo provided by the campaign.

The campaign received a letter on Aug. 3 that they had 30 days to close their official campaign account, records show. Matt Gotha, a consultant for Fried's campaign for Commissioner of Agriculture, said they closed the account Saturday and transferred its approximately $137,000 to BB&T.

At a press conference in Tallahassee on Monday, Fried called the decision "totally unprecedented," and another example of "the failures of our laws, institutions (and) politicians to respect patients and doctors (and) the will of the voters."

"When Wells Fargo first sent us an email a few weeks ago making this outrageous decision, they told me my account was being flagged because of my 'political platform,'" Fried said, making air quotes. "I thought this was a joke."

Fried, a Democrat, is a Broward County-based lawyer and lobbyist.

Banks have been hesitant to have accounts for medical marijuana businesses because although states have legalized it for medical use, it's still illegal at the federal level. The pressure is especially high for banks in Florida, which has a high level of international customers and money laundering, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated he is going to be stricter than the previous administration on medical pot.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Bridget Braxton sent a statement about the bank's motivations.

"It is Wells Fargo's policy not to knowingly bank or provide services to marijuana businesses or for activities related to those businesses, based on federal laws under which the sale and use of marijuana is illegal even if state laws differ," the statement read. "We continually review our banking relationships to ensure we adhere to strict regulatory and risk guidelines."

But this action by a major bank closing the account of someone seeking public office is virtually unheard of, and this may be the first time it's happened in Florida.

Florida voters overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana by a 71 percent majority in 2016 via a ballot proposal. If elected, Fried would serve on the cabinet which oversees the state's banking industry by appointing the director of the Office of Financial Regulation.

Wells Fargo faced a major scandal earlier this year when it agreed to a $480 million settlement of a securities fraud suit over the bank creating fake accounts.

Fried, an attorney and lobbyist for medical marijuana herself, cited her own professional history fighting Wells Fargo when she defended homeowners against foreclosure in court.

"I'm a candidate. …. I'm not touching a plant, I'm not selling a plant, I'm not producing a plant — I'm simply advocating for the expansion of medical marijuana and that was the reason for closing me down," she said. "I was specifically targeted."

In anticipation of a similar complaint, Fried's campaign also closed their political committee's account with Wells Fargo, which has around $76,000, according to the Division of Elections website.

A copy of Fried's campaign check to the state for her qualifying fees also confirm her campaign had a Wells Fargo account.

The Fried campaign had already sent out a fundraising email by Monday afternoon which not only asked voters for their support, but made another request: "Close your Wells Fargo account as soon as you can. They don't deserve your business."

Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.