Helios Dayspring had one goal: build a cannabis empire that, in his words, would be "too big to fail."
But as he acquired hundreds of acres of land to grow the product and opened storefronts along California's Central Coast to sell it, Dayspring's ambition led him to bribery.
His target was a county supervisor who, in exchange for cash and other perks, pushed measures that advanced the interests of his secret benefactor and tried to stifle those that didn't.
After a lengthy hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge André Birotte Jr. sentenced Dayspring to 22 months in prison for bribing a public official and filing a false tax return.
"What's troubling about this case is it goes to the heart of government process," Birotte said, noting that just a few blocks from the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, several council members at City Hall have been accused of taking bribes.
In Dayspring's case, the bribes paid and favors performed have left a jaded public with the impression, Birotte said, "that, 'Hey, this is the way it's supposed to be, but this is the way it's done.'"
Dayspring began growing small amounts of cannabis around 2007, when he got a prescription for medical marijuana, one of his lawyers, Sandra Brown Bodner, wrote in a sentencing memo.
He bought 40 acres of land in the mountains east of Santa Maria, living on his property in a trailer with his two dogs and earning a reputation for growing "first-rate product," his attorney wrote.
Dayspring told the court Friday that his life became "singularly focused on building a business that was too big to fail. That no matter what was taken from me, I would always have the ability to find security for my family, my partners, my employees and, at the end of the line, myself."
He pleaded guilty in July to bribery and filing a false tax return.
By 2013, Dayspring was supplying an estimated 30 legal dispensaries in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, his attorney wrote. He eventually acquired six grow sites and opened dispensaries in several Central Coast cities, ventures that made him millions of dollars.
Dayspring's attorneys said he had hired a different lawyer to help him navigate a shifting morass of licensing and regulatory hurdles as he looked to expand his businesses. The lawyer, whom they didn't name, introduced Dayspring in 2016 to Adam Hill, a San Luis Obispo county supervisor, they said.
Attorney Brown Bodner suggested the lawyer told Dayspring to bribe Hill, saying he gave her client "not just incorrect, but frankly illegal advice."
Birotte seemed skeptical. "No one forced him to do it," he noted. "Maybe someone turned him onto the, quote-unquote, game, but he took advantage of it."
Eric Shevin, one of Dayspring's lawyers, said the supervisor first appealed to the entrepreneur by saying his wife had left him, leaving him without furniture in his home and unable to make his rent. The bribes, Shevin said, "trickled in."
Hill died of an overdose of cocaine and antidepressants in August 2020, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported. Authorities ruled it a suicide.
"He lives with, quite frankly, the death of Adam Hill," Shevin said.
Before his death, the supervisor acknowledged he'd tried to kill himself after agents searched his government office in March 2020. He had not been charged with a crime at the time of his death.
In his plea agreement, Dayspring admitted that he first bribed Hill with three $3,000 money orders. He paid Hill an additional $9,000 in cash the following year, the agreement said.
In November 2017, San Luis Obispo supervisors were weighing whether to exempt certain growers from a moratorium on cultivating marijuana on unincorporated county land. The board voted unanimously to grant the exemption to growers who had registered with the county before the ban went into effect - a decision that benefited Dayspring, according to his plea agreement.
The following year, Dayspring gave Hill $5,000 in cash and cannabis products. He urged the politician to maintain the exemption, but only for growers like Dayspring who had already received it, writing in a text message: "It's really important u guys extend the timeframe for submission and don't allow other people in yet."
After the Board of Supervisors voted 5 to 0 to extend the exemptions, Dayspring said he handed Hill $5,000 in cash outside a restaurant in Avila Beach.
Shevin argued Friday that Hill did not take any action that benefited Dayspring alone, but rather a group of growers who had all been seeking the exemption. Birotte shot down that idea.
"The reality is Mr. Dayspring did not give the supervisor money out of the goodness of his heart," the judge said.
Dayspring also admitted he tried to bribe the mayor of Grover Beach, a small city south of San Luis Obispo. The mayor didn't respond to the offer and no money changed hands, according to Dayspring's plea agreement.
Dayspring's lawyers blamed his crimes, in part, on the unnamed lawyer and other professionals whom he had hired to help "navigate an extensive, confusing, and in flux burgeoning regulatory framework" as the state tried to move the marijuana industry out of the black market and into a legal one.
Prosecutors acknowledged that the state's fledgling cannabis industry is "rife with corruption," but they laid the blame squarely on Dayspring himself.
"He was trying to fix the game," Thomas Rybarczyk, an assistant U.S. attorney, told Birotte. "Make sure no one else got in. He was the cannabis king."
Rybarczyk pointed to a text Dayspring sent to another person in the cannabis industry. "I got my hands in the political cookie jar," he wrote, "and will make sure the market remains a local one."
Dayspring gained an edge in another corrupt way, the prosecutor added: From 2014 to 2018, he filed false tax returns that deprived the Internal Revenue Service of nearly $3.5 million. It was fair to assume he used this capital to expand his business interests, "a benefit not enjoyed by those who played by the rules," Rybarczyk said. He urged Birotte to send Dayspring to prison for two years and three months.
Dayspring's attorneys had asked the judge to spare him from prison and sentence him instead to three years of probation. Brown Bodner said he had provided "extraordinary" cooperation in investigations of public corruption in the Central Coast.
At the authorities' direction, Dayspring met with a public official wearing a wire, she said, and he agreed to testify before a grand jury and at trial if asked.
But Rybarczyk said there was nothing at all extraordinary about Dayspring's cooperation: He provided information on four people, none of which led to any investigations; his secret recording of the public official captured "nothing criminal" and went nowhere, the prosecutor said.
Dayspring's lawyers also urged Birotte to consider his giving to charity, saying he passed out turkeys and held toy drives for the needy.
"If I'm making $30 million, great," the judge said. "I'm giving out toys to everyone."
Birotte ordered Dayspring to surrender by Aug. 26 to serve his prison term.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.