Pot execs show the green for ex-regulator’s bid for Cook County Board seat

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Bridget Degnen, who’s challenging incumbent Cook County Commissioner John Fritschey in the Democratic primary. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

After Bridget Degnen left her job as the No. 2 official overseeing the state’s medical cannabis dispensaries, marijuana industry interests began making contributions to Degnen’s campaign for a seat on the Cook County Board.

Degnen gave up her $98,000-a-year post as Illinois’ deputy director of medical cannabis on Oct. 31 after more than three years on the job, records show.

Since then, her campaign for county commissioner has gotten more than $10,000 from people and companies in the pot industry and $25,000 from a new political action committee funded primarily by a lawyer for cannabis interests, records show.

Degnen formed her campaign committee last September to run against incumbent Commissioner John Fritchey in Tuesday’s primary.

On Dec. 12, medical marijuana companies hosted a fundraiser for her at Bar Lupo in River North. The invitation listed four cannabis companies as hosting the event:

  • PharmaCann, based in Oak Park, which has four licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Illinois, state records show. Its general counsel, Jeremy Unruh, gave $1,000 to the Degnen campaign.
  • Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago company with four retail outlets and two cultivation centers in Illinois. Dina Rollman, its general counsel of compliance, gave Degnen $250.
  • Seven Point, a dispensary in Oak Park that gave $1,000 to the campaign.
  • Greenpoint Group, which has obtained state licenses for dispensaries in Deerfield and Mokena.

Degnen has reported getting 15 contributions from companies or executives in the marijuana industry totaling $10,150.

Her campaign also received three contributions for a total of $25,000 from LSG PAC Account. The biggest contributor to that political action committee is Lakeview Strategy Group, the lobbying firm of Chicago lawyer Brendan Shiller, who represented strip-club owner Perry Mandera’s bid to open a medical marijuana in the city.

In her online LinkedIn profile, Degnen, who is running in a district representing the city’s North Side, says she worked for the state’s medical pot program since 2013 and cites her oversight of dispensaries.

“I have screened and selected dispensing organizations, developed rules governing dispensary operation and framed policy and best dispensary practices,” she wrote.

Degnen says that, while still was working for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which oversees pot dispensaries, she “had a talk with the ethics officer at the IDFPR to look into what I could accept and what I couldn’t. Realistically, if elected, I would have no authority over these dispensaries, and they know that. They just want better public service.”

Taking money from the industry that until recently Degnen regulated doesn’t violate Illinois law, according to Ricardo Meza, a former state executive inspector general.

Former state officials are barred for year from working for or getting any payment from companies they regulated, under the “revolving door” provisions of Illinois law.

“But that’s a separate issue from receiving campaign contributions,” Meza says.

Degnen also has gotten financial support in her first run for office from Cinespace Chicago Film Studio, the West Side TV and film production studio where her husband Mark Degnen is chief financial officer. Cinespace spokeswoman Karen Banks is the ex-wife of Degnen’s electoral opponent Fritchey.

Mark Degnen gave his wife’s campaign $5,000 on Dec. 29, and Cinespace paid for nearly $1,500 of food for a Degnen fundraiser in January, records show.

State records show her campaign also has gotten $5,000 from each of two real estate companies owned by Alex Pissios, Cinespace’s chief executive; $5,000 from O’Connor Contractors Inc. of Alsip, which, on its website, cites work it has done for Cinespace; and $1,000 from IATSE Studio Mechanics Local 476, a union that represents Cinespace workers.

Degnen and Fritchey both have gotten financial backing from organized labor.

A political committee of the Chicago Federation of Labor has given Degnen’s campaign a total of $15,000, according to state election board records. The federation’s president, Jorge Ramirez, is chairman of the board of the company that owns the Sun-Times.

Degnen also has received money from unions representing service employees (about $45,000), carpenters (about $25,000) and a PAC for operating engineers Local 150 ($15,000). The unions are involved in the Sun-Times’ ownership group.

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Fritchey’s re-election campaign has reported getting a total of $26,000 since the start of the year from the Teamsters, including $15,000 from a Park Ridge union local that longtime Chicago Teamsters boss John T. Coli Sr. led until shortly before he was indicted last year on federal charges that accuse him of extorting $325,000 from Cinespace.

Fritchey says the Teamsters support him because he opposed the county’s now-repealed tax on sweetened beverages and many Teamsters work in the bottling industry.

“I’m not surprised to have the support of the Teamsters, given they stood to lose over 400 jobs had the soda tax not been repealed,” Fritchey says.

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