Jilted applicants for the next round of pot shop licenses called on Cook County leaders Tuesday to probe former pot regulator and current Commissioner Bridget Degnen’s potential ties to the cannabis industry.
Rickey Hendon, a former Democratic state senator and dispensary applicant, said officials should hold a hearing to question whether Degnen is connected to any group that applied or became a finalist for the 75 upcoming dispensary licenses. Degnen, the former deputy director of medical cannabis at the state agency that issues dispensary licenses, pitched herself as an expert last year as she offered paid application help to two individuals tied to a group seeking dispensary licenses, the Sun-Times has learned.
Degnen, who didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday, has refused to answer any questions about her alleged work in the industry.
“How was she involved?” Hendon said during a news conference outside the Cook County Building. “If she wasn’t involved, she should be willing to tell the Sun-Times and others that she had nothing to do with it.”
Amid a series of lawsuits and revelations that clouted figures were attached to some of the groups already tapped for the lottery, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that more than 900 groups that were initially left out would be given a second chance to make the cut.
Pritzker “does not want to be the governor over the greatest scandal that ever hit Illinois,” Hendon warned while discussing the ongoing licensing imbroglio. “And that looks like where we’re going.”
Hendon, speaking outside the Cook County Building downtown, said he was appealing directly to county President Toni Preckwinkle and Commissioner Bill Lowry, chairman of the county’s Cannabis Commission.
Nick Shields, Preckwinkle’s spokesman, said she still hasn’t spoken to Degnen about the reports but rebuffed the call for a public hearing.
“This isn’t a matter that’s applicable to the Commission and doesn’t involve the County,” Shields said.
Lowry didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Commissioner Scott Britton said he wouldn’t be opposed to a meeting on Degnen and other concerns about cannabis legalization.
“I do think that having a further discussion of the issue, not necessarily just her involvement but I think the issue generally, is what the purpose of the commission is,” said Britton, who also hasn’t talked to Degnen about the reports.
Britton said members of the commission are planning to send recommendations to Pritzker and members of the Legislature detailing possible reforms to the state’s social equity program, which was put in place to bolster minority participation in the largely white cannabis industry. He believes any hearing should come after that report has been completed and sent out.
Unlike the state government, which issues licenses to cannabis businesses, and local governments, which approve zoning, county officials have far less influence over pot-related matters.
Nevertheless, Degnen sat on the sidelines in January as her fellow commissioners approved a 3% tax on recreational weed sales. At the time, Degnen said she wanted to avoid any appearance of a conflict after serving as a top cannabis regulator, WBEZ reported.
Companies and individuals involved in the weed business have flooded her campaign coffers with at least $19,200 in donations, according to a Sun-Times analysis. She has collected another $25,000 from a political action committee tied to attorney Brendan Shiller, who represents pot shop proprietor Perry Mandera.
Mandera, the former owner of VIP’s strip club, leases his Near West Side dope store from a real estate company that has included Degnen’s husband, the chief financial officer for the Cinespace film studio.
That company, Lawndale Real Estate, is led by Cinespace president Alexander Pissios, who secretly recorded conversations to help federal authorities nail longtime Chicago Teamsters union boss John T. Coli Sr. for extortion.