TAMPA — With its website promoting stories or videos such as "Did William Shakespeare smoke cannabis?" and "Wholesale cannabis prices sky high in Colorado," Cannavoices was supposed to be a hip look at the legal marijuana industry.
The Tampa company, which produces Cannavoices Lifestyle magazine, which focuses primarily on medical marijuana, launched with a party at the Station House restaurant in St. Petersburg during the summer.
Just four months later, the players who created Cannavoices are ensnared in a legal battle over control of a fledgling company now mired in competing claims about the misuse of corporate assets. The magazine has published just one issue, and postings on the main page of the website, cannavoices.com, have not been updated since August.
In a lawsuit filed last month in Hillsborough circuit court, three Cannavoices shareholders — Kevin Gillespie, Danny Hammett and Joel Prackler — accuse Robert McCann, Cannavoices president, of "wasting corporate assets" and "damaging the goodwill and reputation" of the company. The suit seeks $20 million in damages.
Among other allegations, the lawsuit accused McCann of giving himself a pay raise, from $7,500 to $25,000 monthly, and using corporate cash to pay for personal expenses and travel.
McCann denied wasting corporate assets.
The lawsuit also said McCann "unilaterally" amended Cannavoices' articles of incorporation to remove Gillespie as president and director, then inserted himself. That, the suit said, amounted to a misrepresentation to the state.
There is one significant problem with that allegation, according to papers filed by McCann's attorneys. Gillespie agreed to be removed as an officer after selling his shares in Cannavoices to McCann for $1 million, McCann said in court documents. Gillespie received a $300,000 down payment for the sale and was to have received $70,000 per month for 10 months.
In fact, McCann filed with the court an Aug. 11 notarized "equity purchase agreement" signed by Gillespie and McCann.
In a motion to the court, he accuses Gillespie of misusing corporate cash and making questionable withdrawals from company accounts of up to $400,000. McCann also said he was authorized to get the higher salary rate.
Neither Gillespie nor McCann could be reached for comment. And an attorney representing Gillespie and other plaintiffs did not return a call or email seeking comment.
McCann's attorney, Gregory de La Pena of San Francisco, said a judge has ordered both sides to refrain from saying anything that might damage the company during litigation.
"Although telling the truth shouldn't be damaging to the company, I don't want to get in trouble with the court," de La Pena said in declining to comment.
McCann, Gillespie and Prackler were principals of First Harvest Financial, a Tampa private-equity fund that invests in marijuana-related startups. The men formed Cannavoices during the summer as a digital-media company.
A July news release said, "They have chosen to partner with First Harvest Financial due to their unprecedented ability to enhance knowledge and understanding about the history and culture of cannabis."
Cannabis is a flowering herb from which marijuana is derived.
The venture appears to have attracted significant investment, judging by the hundreds of thousands of dollars in Cannavoices' coffers referenced in the litigation. But it is not immediately clear who those investors are.
The suit asked a judge to issue an injunction blocking McCann from wasting company assets, but a judge rejected that in a hearing earlier this month.
By the way, some scientists say tests of pipe fragments found on Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon home are suggestive of cannabis use. But whether the Bard ever touched the pipes is anyone's guess.
Contact William R. Levesque at email@example.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.