Lawmaker’s CBD enterprise forced to pay back $144,000 to investors after state investigation

After regaling a crowd about the prospect of becoming “marijuana millionaires,” state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt started Wakanna For Life, a multilevel marketing company that has since been the subject of multiple consumer complaints. The vast majority of those who paid to set up “dispensaries” through her company have made an average of just $200.

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Wakanna For Life’s headquarters at 411 E. 35th St. in Bronzeville.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt’s embattled CBD business has paid back more than $144,000 to investors as part of a settlement agreement stemming from an investigation by the Illinois secretary of state’s office, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

WaKanna For Life LLC, the Chicago Democrat’s Douglas-based multilevel marketing firm, is touted as a “movement” that has helped thousands of African Americans sell hemp-based CBD, or cannabidiol, a legal and nonpsychoactive compound also found in cannabis that’s used to treat a range of conditions. The company’s “founders” — Van Pelt, CEO Melissa Boston, Dr. Rita McGuire and Phyllis Nash — are all Black women.

Van Pelt began hosting cannabis investment workshops as Illinois’ pot legalization push gained steam in early 2019.

“I’m riding the wave with the rich,” she says in a promotional video that showed her talking to a crowd about becoming “marijuana millionaires.”

Within months of its launch that year, WaKanna For Life started using a network of distributors to sell products containing CBD. Around the same time, Boston said the company planned to seek licenses to grow and sell weed.

But WaKanna For Life and its subsidiaries have since faced multiple consumer complaints and investigations, the Sun-Times has learned.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of those who pay for training to set up online “dispensaries” to sell products like creams and lotions with CBD make an average of only a couple hundred bucks, the Sun-Times found.

After WCIA in Springfield reported on Van Pelt’s pot-related endeavors in May 2019, she was swiftly removed as a co-sponsor of the legalization measure and a conflict of interest ban was later added. In addition, the secretary of state’s office opened an investigation.

That probe has apparently centered on WaKanna Investors LLC, an “investment vehicle” that holds a 49% interest in WaKanna For Life, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those two entities — along with WaKanna LLC, which controls the majority ownership of WaKanna For Life — make up a web of interconnected companies looking to cash in on the highly competitive and loosely regulated CBD trade.

In a statement of economic interests filed last year, Van Pelt is listed as the president of both WaKanna and WaKanna For Life. Her name only appears in WaKanna’s incorporation records as a manager, according to the agency.

Records show that Boston admitted WaKanna Investors flouted state and federal regulations in 2019 by raising $305,000 from 71 investors — more than double the number of permitted backers for a company seeking an exemption to avoid registering its securities. In order to retain that exemption, the company specifically had to refund investments made by out-of-state residents.

WaKanna Investors had sought to unload up to $1 million worth of shares, or LLC units, according to “report of sale” documents that were initially misfiled and weren’t submitted within the allotted timeframe.

In an affidavit last May explaining WaKanna Investors’ efforts to come into compliance, Boston said 30 investors paying on an installment basis first had their plans canceled. The company then offered to buy back shares from 40 other investors with 10% interest, a move Boston described as “a mandated corrective measure.”

Roughly $62,000 was returned to those who were paying in installments, and another $82,250 went to five other investors who accepted the so-called rescission offer, according to David Finnigan of the secretary of state’s office. The offer specifically warned that WaKanna Investors was a shaky bet with just a year of operating history, “ongoing further capital needs” and other risk factors.

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State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt speaks during a news conference about the opening of the new COVID-19 mass vaccination site on the parking lot of the United Center in the Near West Side neighborhood on March 9, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

In interviews with the Sun-Times, Van Pelt and Boston, who previously worked for the Danish shipping giant Maersk, both blamed the issues on a lawyer’s bad advice.

“The legal concern was mainly that it was offered to non-state residents, when it should have only been offered to state residents,” Boston said of the LLC unit sale, noting that only out-of-staters accepted the rescission deal.

“There was never any intent, nor attempt to evade thelaw, quite the opposite,” she added. “WaKanna soughtandfollowedtheadvice of an attorney.”

Secretary of State Jesse White, Van Pelt’s longtime political ally, has recused himself from his agency’s investigation of the WaKanna entities, Finnigan said. White was previously recruited by Van Pelt to invest in 5Linx, another multilevel marketing firm that offered health insurance, nutritional supplements and business, utility and telecommunications services.

The three co-founders of 5Linx were later convicted of federal charges after admitting to defrauding investors out of more than $2 million. Van Pelt, after rising to the position of senior vice president, wasn’t charged in connection to the fraud scheme.

The payoffs to investors left WaKanna Investors with 35 outside backers — the most allowed by state and federal regulations — but the investigation remained open for months. Finnigan also confirmed his team has cooperated with other investigations, though he declined to name the other agencies probing the WaKanna entities.

In an interview, Van Pelt acknowledged she was questioned by the state’s office of the legislative inspector general about her cannabis investment coaching. She insisted the inquiry had run its course, though a spokesman for the legislative inspector general’s office wouldn’t comment even to confirm or deny an investigation.

‘I didn’t feel I was made whole’

WaKanna For Life has also been the subject of a series of consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission and the Illinois attorney general’s office, according to records obtained by the Sun-Times.

The FTC has fielded at least five complaints over the past two years, including allegations the company was sending unsolicited messages, requesting personal information and “charging people to attend seminars for training [on] how to be their own boss and start their own business.”

Both the FTC and the attorney general’s office logged nearly duplicative complaints last December that raise questions about WaKanna For Life’s business practices and appear to relate to the company’s ill-fated effort to sell off shares.

Karen Mason, a WaKanna For Life distributor, complained that over seven months in 2019 she spent nearly $1,800 on two “dispensary” packages containing CBD products, business tools, classes and support services — purchases that were premised on Boston’s assurances that she would also receive shares of stock and a chance to receive a portion of the company’s revenue. But Mason never received any official documentation, according to the complaints.

In addition, Mason claimed she hadn’t received the “appropriate commissions” on more than $5,000 in gross sales. Mason asked for documentation of any “shares of stock” and commissions or a refund of $6,797 to cover her sales and purchases, according to the complaint filed with the attorney general’s office.

WaKanna For Life’s attorney, Boyd Jentzsch, claimed the company responded to the complaints by providing “point-by-point documentation” that showed the allegations were false. Still, Jentzsch said the company offered a full refund if the products in question were returned in good condition.

That never happened, according to Jentzsch, who claimed Mason even continued ordering products from the company. He further claimed the matters “are now considered closed,” though Mason disagreed.

While she acknowledged that Boston reached out and offered to buy back products, Mason told the Sun-Times she never received records of the shares she was promised or a refund of what she believed was investment money.

“I didn’t feel I was made whole. ... The resolution that Ms. Boston gave me was not a resolution. I still feel my complaint is unresolved,” said Mason, who nevertheless lauded some of WaKanna’s products but said she stopped purchasing them shortly after filing the complaints.

A spokesman for the FTC declined to discuss WaKanna For Life. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said its complaint was sent to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, though an agency spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mason noted she was also referred to a special agent in the secretary of state’s office’s securities division, who she remained in contact with for months last year.

A South Sider with a background performing audits and doing compliance work, Mason said she also noticed glaring gaps in WaKanna For Life’s operations when she was hired to conduct a fixed asset review at the company’s headquarters at 411 E. 35th St. For example, she said there was no documentation of the building’s assets and no accounting of the inventory held there.

She also raised concerns over the company’s convoluted seven-tiered compensation plan, noting that a friend wasn’t elevated to a higher — and more lucrative — sales level after hitting the stated goal of reaching $10,000 in revenue in a month. In her complaints, Mason warned that inconsistencies in the plan “can be viewed as presenting misleading and inaccurate information” and could pose “a reputational and financial risk to WaKanna.”

“They have done some things that would be viewed as suspect,” she told the Sun-Times.

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WaKanna’s website advertises the “highest quality CBD products.”

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WaKanna For Life requires distributors to pay for training after a free trial period and to purchase costly products to sell through personalized online “dispensaries.” On its websites, the company has touted its “lucrative compensation plan,” noting that its leaders “have shaped multi-billion dollar companies and have helped empower over 5,000 minorities to join the Cannabis/CBD space.”

But according to WaKanna For Life’s own “income disclosure statement,” which includes figures from May 2019 through the end of last year, 90% of the company’s total affiliates made an average of $200 or less annually.

“Note that it takes hard work to make substantial income in this business and some Independent Sales Representative’s [sic] make no money at all,” WaKanna’s websites warn.

Van Pelt reiterated that statement, noting that distributors “don’t make money from not working.” But she also said she believes that some people join the company simply to purchase discounted products for their own use.

After reviewing unaudited financial statements presented in an online meeting in August 2020, Mason specifically accused Van Pelt of not being straight with affiliates when she claimed WaKanna For Life had grossed more than $3 million.

“That was TOTALLY incorrect!!” Mason wrote in an email to a WaKanna For Life consultant and Nathalie Thompson, the company’s vice president at the time.

The rescission offer sent to investors provides only a limited window into the WaKanna entities’ finances. By July 2020, WaKanna For Life reported paying out over $654,000 in commissions from $2.2 million in total sales. But that didn’t include “the tens of thousands of dollars” that went to the company’s “corporate staff,” the offer stated.

At the time, WaKanna For Life’s backers owned just 4% of the company. The board of managers — which included Van Pelt, Boston, McGuire, Nash and Thompson — controlled the rest.

Van Pelt said the company has now generated more than $7 million in sales.

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Some of the products for sale at wakanna.com.

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