A divided Southern University Board of Supervisors voted Friday to move forward with a "historic" medical marijuana partnership with Advanced Biomedics, despite an 11th-hour lawsuit filed against the firm and questions over changes to the contract.
The renegotiated contract makes it easier for the deal to be extended to up to 15 years. Under the new deal, Advanced Biomedics also will pay Southern University an additional $2 million it wouldn’t have received under the original contract, in the form of signing bonuses for the two renewal periods.
Southern expects to have the drug available early next year. LSU, the other grower authorized by the state, has said it will have the drug available later this year.
Advanced Biomedics will now invest between $6 million and $10 million to build a facility from the ground up on a 176-acre tract of land on Scenic Highway between Baker and Zachary, according to Janana Snowden, the Southern AgCenter official in charge of the program. The facility will initially employ 44 people.
Southern board members were not swayed by a lawsuit filed Thursday in Lafayette against the founder and minority owner of Advanced Biomedics, Chad Bodin, though there was a move to delay the vote for 30 days to evaluate the lawsuit. That suit is from a Baton Rouge investor who alleges Bodin breached a $20 million agreement with an investment group that would have given them a 14 percent stake in the company.
The vote also affirmed the partnership with Advanced Biomedics despite its two largest owners spending much of the past two months warring in court over the ownership structure and contract negotiation with Southern. The school had threatened to pick another partner if the owners did not work out their differences earlier this month.
Southern University President and Chancellor Ray Belton acknowledged that the amount of money Advanced Biomedics was offering Southern was one of the reasons behind the decision to partner with the firm. Another firm was ranked first in an initial selection process, but the board last year instead selected Advanced Biomedics, which offered the most money to the school.
“If we move away from Advanced Biomedics, where do we go?” Belton said at the end of a lengthy debate Friday over the contract. “Who do we go to? Another vendor whom this board has already found did not provide the amount of subsidies which we’re seeking right now?”
After the meeting, Belton said Advanced Biomedics “aligned with our interest” the most.
He also said the lawsuit would not have a “material” effect on the partnership, even under the worst-case scenario.
“That’s (Advanced Biomedics’) problem,” Belton said.
Earlier this month, the two biggest owners of Advanced Biomedics resolved an internal dispute that was playing out in Lafayette court over company ownership and contract negotiations. The company met a deadline imposed by Southern and signed the contract that was approved Friday.
Carrol Castille, who put up $12 million to become the majority owner of the firm, had filed suit against Bodin, the founder and largest minority owner, alleging Bodin secretly negotiated a bad deal without permission. Bodin then filed a suit that challenged Castille's ownership interest in the firm. The two later said the dispute had been resolved and promised not to pursue further legal action against each other.
This week, Ian E. James, a Baton Rouge financial adviser, filed suit against Bodin and Advanced Biomedics over claims the company backed out of an agreement that would have given James and other investors a 14 percent stake in the firm in exchange for $20 million. James' claims that before Bodin and Castille resolved their differences and met Southern's deadline, Bodin approached James and “other potential investors” to solicit their investment in the company. In addition to breach of contract, James also alleged defamation over being wrongly blamed for a blog, southerndeservesbetter.com, that urges board members to drop Advanced Biomedics.
After the vote to move forward, Castille tried to assuage board members' concerns and said he will work to "catch up with our competition." Castille's lawyer also said the suit filed by James had "no merit."
“This just appears to me to stink," board member Tony Clayton said during the debate, pushing to defer the measure for 30 days. Clayton questioned changes to the contract and said he needed time for attorneys to wade through the new lawsuit.
"It's been confusion throughout," added Raymond Fondel. "This is one of the biggest contracts we'll enter into."
Board member Patrick Magee questioned the timing of the James lawsuit and argued the program had already been delayed long enough. Members noted the school had hoped to be first to market, but LSU is expected to have product available earlier.
"All of this is a smoke screen," added Domoine Rutledge. "Let’s not be fooled by the noise that we’re hearing about this. We’ve got a good deal here."