DENVER – State Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is getting some heat for a bill he carried during the 2017 legislative session because of a perceived conflict of interest.
Senate Bill 117, which recognizes industrial hemp as an approved agricultural product for the purposes of using federal project water, was approved by the Legislature and signed into law last week in Cortez.
According to a letter addressed to State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and submitted anonymously to The Durango Herald, Coram is affiliated with an industrial hemp production and processing company, Paradox Venture, and could stand to gain from the legislation.
The letter states, “There is no ‘appearance’ of a conflict of interest and abuse of power, State Sen. Don Coram has used his position to enrich himself and his business partners at taxpayers’ expense.”
Coram said he is a founder of Paradox Ventures, a hemp production start-up based in Naturita but doesn’t believe there is a conflict of interest, as the bill does not single out this company or Montrose County.
His position appears to be backed up by a state statute and legislative rules that exempt legislation affecting an entire “class,” in this case industrial hemp growers, from being considered an ethical conflict.
SB 117 affects the whole state and was a response to water rights being withheld from a hemp farmer on the Front Range.
“Phillip Chavez, a farmer in the Ark (Arkansas) Valley, had his water cut off by an irrigation company because the Bureau of Reclamation said that hemp was not acceptable,” Coram said.
Chavez, who owns and operates Diamond A Farms in Rocky Ford, said the genesis of SB 117 was a water tour across the state by legislators where he was giving a presentation about lease fallowing, the process of leasing water rights while a parcel of land recovers from farming.
Part of this presentation was a handout that showed hemp fields, and Coram asked a series of questions about hemp growing, including if there was anything he could do to help hemp production.
“And I said, ‘as a matter of fact there is, we’re having problems getting project water,’” Chavez said.
Without having access to federal project water, Chavez had to rely on access to the Arkansas River, which allowed him to continue operations on his farm.
Dianna Reams, a representative of Paradox Ventures, said she does not believe there is a conflict on behalf of Coram running the bill because of the bill’s scope and the abundance of private water rights in the Naturita area where the start-up is based.
The law does affect other areas of Montrose County where there is federally funded Project 7 water, Reams said. “It does affect us to some degree but not nearly as much as some of the areas of the state.”
Reams said the focus of Paradox is less about production and more about gathering the information for growing and processing hemp and selling this knowledge to entities interested in entering the field.
Coram said he wants the venture to produce and sell its own goods and potentially be lucrative, but he doesn’t see this as a conflict.
“I’ve never in my life apologized for being an entrepreneur,” he said.
Whoever sent the letter to Coffman see things differently and said, “Don Coram sponsoring and voting on legislation that he will personally profit from is unethical and if it is not a violation of his oath of office, it should be.”
The Attorney General’s Office said it would look into the matter but offered no further response Wednesday.